Sunday, January 21, 2018
Business

FDA regulation threatens Tampa's last cigar factory

Does it seem like Tampa spends a lot of time trying to explain itself to the rest of the world?

No, it is not Orlando West or Jacksonville South. Yes, the city has hosted national and international events. No, a real Cuban sandwich cannot include pesto mayo, or avocado, and yes, those are actual chickens running around Ybor City just past a respectable downtown skyline.

And yes, we are an interesting blend of Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrant roots, something you don't find just anywhere.

So isn't it typically Tampa that a last remnant of a rich cigar-making history could end because a government agency doesn't quite get us?

This city's last full-scale factory in which cigars are still made stands near Interstate 4 in Ybor City. It is 104 years old and made from iconic red brick, built east to west in that classic cigar factory shape to catch the workaday sunlight through its north-south windows. "El Reloj," they call the place because of the clock in the clock tower. Stepping inside the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. is stepping back.

"We're making cigars the same way my grandfather made them 75 years ago," says company president Eric Newman over the low rumbling din of 130 employees at work. On wood floors worn smooth by generations, with the musky scent of tobacco in the air, workers are busy at hand-operated machines from the 1930s making cigars.

"We've gone through world wars, the Great Depression, trying to get forced out by big manufacturers, the Cuban embargo," Newman says. So can they withstand the good intentions of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration?

An FDA effort to regulate cigars and other tobacco products as they do cigarettes to protect minors could unwittingly write the final chapter here. New rules would mean 5,000 hours of testing for any new product in what has become a boutique industry that depends on, you guessed it, new products. Those vintage machines would come under new scrutiny. New fees, the owners say, could be prohibitive.

They worry they will be regulated right out of business.

Boosters point out these cigars are sold at specialty stores and not marketed to minors, and theirs are not the mass market cigars the new regulations are meant for. The Newman family is rallying support, some of it from heavy-hitters like Tampa congresswoman Kathy Castor, who, it would appear, gets cigars.

"This is one of the things that defines Tampa," she says. "You still meet people whose grandfather worked in a cigar factory."

Their hope is that the FDA will agree to include J.C. Newman in a proposed exemption for premium cigars that are handmade and cost $10 or more — even though plenty of theirs cost less. Castor says the FDA needs to hear from Tampa. (You can comment at www.regulations.gov until Aug. 8.)

I think it's fair to say there's enough Tampa history in these brick walls and in this family business to warrant that exemption.

Sometimes walking through an old place like this is a melancholy trip through dust and what was. But the J.C. Newman company is still very much alive, at least for now.

Save the cigars — and something unique about Tampa while we're at it.

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