TAMPA — Eric Newman says taking cigars out of Ybor City would be like taking wine out of Napa Valley or Disney World out of Orlando. You just can't do it.
But that could very well happen, he says, if the Food and Drug Administration approves tighter regulations on tobacco products that would treat cigar manufacturers like cigarettemakers.
The president of J.C. Newman Cigar Co. says complying with the proposed requirements would be so cumbersome and cost-prohibitive that the cigar factory would have to close.
"The lifeblood of any business is new products and services, and these regulations would make it impossible to introduce new products,'' he said. "It would require 5,000 hours of product-testing and analysis. We'd be regulated out of business.''
Newman launched a campaign urging the public to submit comments to the FDA, asking the agency to exclude from the rules Tampa's last operating cigar factory. On Tuesday, crews erected banners on the factory's clock tower facing Interstate 4 that say, "Save This Factory. Take Action Today. savecigarcity.com''.
The company is seeking to be included in the FDA's definition of premium cigars based on their ingredients and how they are made. The FDA has proposed exempting premium cigars priced at $10 or more, but many of Newman's cigars cost significantly less.
J.C. Newman's 130 employees make about 12 million cigars a year on Depression-era machines operated by hand. The company was founded in 1895 by Newman's grandfather, Julius Caeser Newman. Located along N 16th Street, it is the last full-scale cigar factory in Tampa, which became known as Cigar City for once housing 150 cigar factories.
The issue, which would also affect small cigarmakers, has drawn support from politicians statewide. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said premium cigars shouldn't be subjected to the same rules as electronic cigarettes and flavored products because they aren't marketed to minors and aren't smoked in the frequency that would cause an addiction.
"The battle right now is to convince the FDA of what the definition of premium cigars is,'' she said. "We're not going to let a piece of Tampa's history be diminished or wiped out by a technical definition.''
The FDA has extended the public comment period until Aug. 8. Already, the agency has received nearly 38,000 comments, many of them asking that the $10 price point be removed from the definition of a premium cigar.
"There is no need to regulate the finer things in life, like cigars!'' wrote one anonymous commenter. "Why don't you go after the 'real' problems and stop targeting good people's relaxation.''
J.C, Newman, while leading the local charge, isn't the only business that would be affected by the proposed rules. Wally Reyes, co-owner of Gonzalez Habano Cigar Co. in Ybor City, said the new regulations would hurt longtime mom-and-pop businesses like his that hand-roll their cigars. Reyes makes about 12,000 cigars a year and any additional rules or inspections would force him to raise prices and scale back operations. A cigar that costs $8 might cost $9.
"Unfortunately, it's another nail in the coffin for the cigar industry,'' he said.
Contact Susan Thurston at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston.