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Column: Save a Tampa cigar institution

When my grandfather was a young boy growing up in Cuba, he was afflicted by polio that permanently disabled his legs and rendered him incapable of working in the tobacco or sugarcane fields like most boys his age. Instead he was sent to school, where he learned to read and write and developed a lifelong passion for learning.

The opportunity to learn in Cuba opened doors for my grandfather that were closed to most, including one at a local cigar factory. Since he couldn't work in the fields but was able to read, he landed a job keeping the cigar rollers entertained during the workday by reading to them.

For more than 150 years, Tampa has been home to dozens of cigar factories just like the one my grandfather worked at in Cuba. This industry helped turn Ybor City into an enduring symbol of the cultural links between Tampa and Cuba while providing thousands of jobs to people trying to live the American Dream. So synonymous is this area with cigars that one of the rising stars of the city's emerging craft beer industry, Cigar City Brewing Co., pays homage to this identity with its name.

Over time, most of these cigar factories have closed for a number of reasons. One exception has been the family-owned J.C. Newman Cigar Co., which is famous for its high-quality, hand-rolled cigars that are sold at relatively affordable prices. This distinction has surprisingly become a problem recently that threatens Newman's existence along with the jobs of its employees.

Newman is not being threatened by economic recession. It's not in danger of closing its doors for being too slow to adapt in a changing industry, nor is it being out-innovated by its competitors. Newman employees' jobs aren't at risk because of 21st century automation or cheaper overseas labor. On the contrary, the human touch involved in its cigarmaking is part of the charm and craftsmanship that sets them apart.

No, what now threatens Newman is that a federal government agency, the Food and Drug Administration, decided to write regulations targeting the premium cigar industry that are so constricting that they have the practical effect of singling out Newman by proposing to regulate high-quality, hand-rolled cigars in the same manner as the makers of low-quality, machine-made cigars. This means more needless FDA testing, paperwork and fees.

This means that a government agency that is now more known for its excruciatingly slow approval process for life-saving medicines, sunscreens and medical devices is instead writing rules that would regulate a company out of existence on the basis of what tobacco leaves are being used to wrap their cigars.

Time is running out to stop this job-killing regulatory assault on a Tampa institution. The FDA is accepting public input on its proposals until early August, after which it will finalize its rules.

For my part, I have joined several of my colleagues in sponsoring the Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act of 2013, which would clarify the FDA's jurisdiction over premium cigar products, effectively negating the devastating job-killing effect these new regulations would have on this traditional industry.

This issue reminds us of the fine line between regulations that protect people and those that needlessly hurt people by destroying jobs, along with people's ability to achieve the American Dream. For years, Newman has been a Tampa institution, a cultural symbol and an opportunity creator for thousands of families.

Newman's time hasn't passed, but it is time to put a halt to unnecessary federal regulations that threaten its future.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is a Republican from Florida. He wrote this article exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Save a Tampa cigar institution 07/23/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 5:33pm]
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