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‘There’s no way to comply’: Florida cigar makers get congressional hearing on new federal tobacco rules

Marco Rubio, Kathy Castor and Gus Bilirakis lead a bipartisan effort to exempt premium cigars from new FDA regulations
SCOTT KEELER   |   TIMES
Worker Haydee Reyes, Tampa, makes Factory Throwout cigars during the day at the J.C. Newman Cigar Company, Tampa. The company is the last operating cigar manufacturer in Tampa.
SCOTT KEELER | TIMES Worker Haydee Reyes, Tampa, makes Factory Throwout cigars during the day at the J.C. Newman Cigar Company, Tampa. The company is the last operating cigar manufacturer in Tampa.
Published Apr. 5, 2019
Updated Apr. 5, 2019

TAMPA — In this age of hyper partisanship, cigars can still bring Florida Democrats and Republicans together.

Sen. Marco Rubio held a Friday hearing in Ybor City on the future of the premium cigar industry, which makers say is threatened by new federal regulations on tobacco products. At the Republican’s sides were Reps. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, and Gus Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor Republican, who have joined Rubio’s fight from the House.

At issue is the Food and Drug Administration’s rules to warn the public about the dangers of tobacco and prevent products tailored to children. In 2016, the FDA said premium cigar makers would have to abide by federal rules that require a Surgeon General’s warning to cover 33 percent of a product’s packaging and submit reports of the ingredients and manufacturing processes of cigars put on the market after February 2007.

Rubio in the Senate and Castor in the House have introduced bills that would exempt premium cigars. Speaking from the heart of the once-proud Cigar City, Rubio and Castor said that cigar makers are often small, local businesses and are much different than the more worrisome cigarettes and vaporizers on the market worthy of government targeting.

Rubio acknowledged headwinds convincing some of his Senate colleagues so far. Some don’t understand the “unique attributes” of premium cigars, and others have been swayed by big tobacco producers not to intervene, Rubio charged.

“Large cigar makers who realize if premium cigar makers go out of business ... then the only product that looks like it is the one they sell behind the counter of gas stations,” he said. "They will make in mass quantities cheaper to make products, cheaper to sell products that look like cigars but are not cigars. I think there’s no doubt they have business interest in seeing premium cigars wiped out.”

Cigar makers, like J.C. Newman of Ybor City, say their premium, handcrafted offerings are being lumped in with mass-produced, convenience store cigarillos, blunts, vaporizers and e-cigarettes.

Children don’t buy premium cigars. At $5 a pop on the low-end, they’re too expensive for kids. And their artisan methods of growing tobacco and rolling stogies lead to hundreds of varieties that would be costly to register with the federal government. There are no additives in their products, they said.

The FDA estimates companies will spend $6,560 to $8,598 per cigar type. It may require lab testing.

“There’s no way to comply with the rule as developed,” said Drew Newman, general counsel of the 124-year-old J.C. Newman Cigar Co., operator of Tampa’s last premium cigar factory with 600 cigar blends. "If there was a way for us to comply, we would.

Covering a one-third of their packaging would destroy one of the main reasons people buy and gift cigars: the box, said Jeff Borysiewicz, president of Corona Cigar Company with stores in Tampa and Orlando.

“People buy cigars to celebrate special occasions," Borysiewicz said. "When every cigar box has a huge health warning sticker covering a third of that box, our stores will look like you’re walking into a dangerous minefield, rather than a beautiful humidor.”

The FDA’s takeover of this issue stems from a 2009 legislation that gave the regulatory agency the authority to write new rules and quickly respond to new products aimed at kids. Castor, who worked on that law, said it was never intended to apply to premium cigars.

“Premium cigars have never been marketed to teenagers,” Castor said. “The FDA rule went too far."

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