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Premium cigars have second chance to gain exemption from FDA regulation

Eric Newman, president of J.C. Newman Cigar Co., puffs on a Diamond Crown Julius Caesar cigar at the company's Tampa plant recently. The cigar is named in honor of Newman's grandfather, J.C., who founded the company in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1895. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 11, 2018

TAMPA — A "Save This Factory" banner will be rehung next week on J.C. Newman Cigar's Ybor City factory, and the company's savecigarcity.com website lobbying against government oversight of premium cigars will be relaunched.

Both were tactics that company president Eric Newman used to fight the Food and Drug Administration as the agency weighed whether to lump in premium cigars with mass-produced stogies, vaporizers and e-cigarettes as part of its regulatory expansion over tobacco.

His effort failed, and in 2016, the FDA chose to regulate premium cigars.

But Newman and his industry have a second chance under a new administration that touts itself as anti-regulation and pro-business.

The FDA has announced it is willing to reconsider the 2016 decision. It began accepting public input in March on whether premium cigars should be exempt from oversight. The comment period runs through June 25.

In Tampa, known as Cigar City for its history as an epicenter for the industry, this is welcome news for those who roll premium cigars. They say the governance could financially hurt them or even put them out of business.

"Over-regulation can harm small business," said Newman, who employs 135 at his Ybor factory, the last cigar factory in a city that once hosted dozens. The company has been in business for 123 years.

All other local premium cigar makers operate out of boutiques.

Those interested in weighing in can send the FDA comments at federalregister.gov or, starting Monday, savecigarcity.com.

Newman estimates that more than 5,000 comments were sent to the FDA through his website during a 2014 public input period. Still, he is optimistic that this time his industry can be victorious.

For starters, he said, the 2014 public comment period also included e-cigarettes, vaporizers and cheap cigars. Now it is focused on premium cigars. Plus, the rules were drafted under President Barack Obama's administration, not President Donald Trump's.

"With an anti-excessive-regulation administration in the White House, Tampa has one more opportunity to keep cigars in the Cigar City," he said.

As part of the regulations, companies must submit a report of the ingredients and manufacturing processes of cigars put on the market after February 2007.

Cigars introduced after that date but before Aug. 8, 2016, can continue to be sold until their reports are reviewed. The deadline for submitting reports for such cigars is August 2021.

A cigar created after Aug. 8, 2016, cannot be sold without report approval.

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

Newman said he currently has more than 500 cigars blends for which he'll have to submit reports and he is hesitant to create new products.

A more pressing deadline is this August, when the FDA will require cigar boxes to have a health warning label covering 30 percent of two display panels. Premium cigar makers say this will ruin boxes considered art.

The industry argues that it should not be regulated like other tobaccos because it doesn't use chemicals and kids don't purchase pricey premium cigars.

"I understand regulating vapes and cigars sold in a 7-Eleven," said Kaizad Hansotia, CEO of Gurkha Cigars in Tamarac. "But we are not in the nicotine delivery service. We use premium 100 percent natural tobacco grown and cultivated. We market cigars for people who are 21 years or older."

The FDA said it opened this comment period "given the ongoing interest from many parties and sectors, such as (the) industry and members of Congress."

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio have actively lobbied for exempting premium cigars from regulation.

The American Lung Association says the FDA is "bowing to political pressure" and it will submit comments in opposition to any exemption.

What defines a premium cigar is one of the questions the FDA is asking. In the past, it said premium meant a hand-rolled cigar that cost more than $10. But some of Newman's cigars cost less than $10, and all are produced by people with the help of machines dating to the early 1900s.

So Newman will press for a definition that encompasses his cigars.

The FDA is also looking at public health considerations. On that point, Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a statement that the agency has already weighed in.

"The FDA rightly rejected the option of exempting premium cigars," Myers said, "finding all cigars increase the risk of disease, are potentially addictive and produce secondhand smoke that can cause disease to nonusers."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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