TAMPA — Luisa Obando felt a tap on her shoulder, looked up from her workbench and saw a senator standing there.
Obando, 63, had been engrossed in her work, bunching together freshly made cigars in plastic at the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. headquarters in east Tampa, when Sen. Marco Rubio walked up during his tour of the factory. She greeted him with a smile, but she had a troubled mind.
"Yo estoy preocupada, Señor Rubio," she said. I'm worried.
Rubio, a Miami Republican nearing the climax of a contentious re-election campaign, visited the company Wednesday to draw attention to the source of Obando's concern: new federal regulations on premium cigars that cigar companies like J.C. Newman say could put them out of business.
The new U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations were already on the books for cigarettes. In August, they began to apply to other tobacco products including premium cigars.
Proponents of the rules, such as the American Cancer Society, say cigars are dangerous to smokers' health just like other tobacco and should be regulated accordingly. But Rubio is among members of the Florida congressional delegation who say that premium cigars should not be lumped in with traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes.
"This is a law that was passed to keep cigarettes and harmful tobacco products out of the hands of young people and children, and I don't think any of us disagree with that," Rubio told reporters after his tour with company president Eric Newman. "Anybody who knows about the premium cigar industry knows it's not an industry that targets or is consumed by young Americans."
One of the biggest points of contention is a review process to bring new products to market that cigarmakers say is lengthy and costly. The rule applies to any products introduced to the market after Feb. 15, 2007.
Rubio, a cigar smoker, held up one of Newman's Brick House cigars, which hit the market in 2008 and will have to go through the review process along with about 60 percent of the company's other products.
"They can't afford to do it," Rubio said. "The end result and the worst-case scenario is about half the people working here in Tampa will lose their jobs at some point, maybe more, because all they're going to be able to sell is the things they were making before 2007."
Adding "insult to injury," Rubio said, is President Obama's executive order last week lifting restrictions so that Americans traveling to Cuba can bring home more of the communist island's cigars and rum. It's unfair to allow those unregulated products into the country and at the same time put onerous regulations on American cigarmakers, he said.
Rubio and his Democratic counterpart Bill Nelson are co-sponsors of the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act, a bipartisan bill that would exempt large and premium cigars from the regulations. An identical House measure has the support of Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor.
Rubio said the measure will likely have to be attached to other legislation. He said he's hoping Congress will get it done this year.
His appearance garnered news coverage for Rubio in a major media market along the Interstate 4 corridor as he's locked in a contentious election against U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Jupiter Democrat. The contest is on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Exempting premium cigars from the FDA regulations is one of the few issues on which Murphy and Rubio agree: Murphy is a co-sponsor of the House bill.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.