Advertisement
  1. Business

New FDA tobacco rules appear to ban cigar donations to troops

Alix Franzblau, Thompson Cigar’s chief operating officer, says she hasn’t been able to respond yet to cigar requests from troops, knowing that new rules forbid sending them.
Published Aug. 29, 2016

TAMPA — The cramped confines of Marilyn Taylor's cubicle at Thompson Cigar Co. are a shrine of sorts to the company's stogie largesse.

Photos of smiling U.S. troops, clutching cigars in their hands or teeth, are tacked to the fabric walls. American flags that flew over outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan, now folded into tight triangles and mailed as tokens of gratitude, are perched on a ledge. A plaque from a U.S. Army sergeant thanks Taylor and her employer for "bringing us closer to home."

The century-old cigar retailer has donated cigars to American troops since World War I. And Taylor, whose title is international control buyer, has been in charge of the company's donations since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"It's reached the level of lore, and the troops know it," said Alix Franzblau, Thompson's chief operating officer. "They write us letters and say, 'My troop is here, can you send us cigars?' and that's what we've done."

But that time-honored tradition has come to a halt with new Food and Drug Administration regulations on cigars, e-cigarettes and other products that took effect Aug. 8

Among the regulations is what many interpret as a ban on the charitable donation of tobacco products. Premium cigarmakers and retailers like Thompson that have donated thousands of cigars each year risk fines or other sanctions if they keep giving.

Their hands, they say, are tied.

"The troops are out there putting their lives on the line to protect our freedoms, rights and privileges, and the federal government is taking away those same freedoms and rights," said Rocky Patel, owner of Rocky Patel Premium Cigar Co. in Bonita Springs. "This is how we can give back to our country and it's amazing the FDA unilaterally seeks to take that away. It just hurts me we're not going to be able to do this anymore."

• • •

The freeze on donations is a troubling development for Mark Van Trees.

Van Trees runs Support the Troops, a Wesley Chapel-based nonprofit organization that sends care packages to bases in locations such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Cigars are the second-most-requested item in those packages, behind coffee and ahead of toothpaste and tube socks, Van Trees said.

Thompson has been the group's biggest supporter, donating 5,000 to 7,000 cigars a month. Patel has donated $60,000 to $80,000 worth of cigars annually. And J.C. Newman, the iconic Ybor City cigarmaker, gives about $20,000 to $30,000 worth of cigars each year

"It means the world to these guys who love to sit by the fire and smoke some sticks," Van Trees said. "This is going to put a huge hole in what we do for them."

Retired Army Sgt. Charles Claybaker of St. Petersburg knows firsthand the joy of puffing on a fine cigar far from home.

In 2009, Claybaker was serving with a 3rd Ranger Battalion platoon at a base in a remote, mountainous part of Afghanistan when a "Support the Troops" package arrived with cigars and playing cards, among other items. As a commanding officer, Claybaker was charged with keeping up morale, and the stogies helped.

"After a long mission and you get into a firefight or something like that, it's nice to have a cigar and play cards with your buddies," he said. "For a few minutes, it just makes you feel like you're back home, like you're American again, especially in a place like Afghanistan that culturally is so extraordinarily different."

It's not just the troops getting free cigars. Newman and other companies donate thousands more to charities each year for silent auctions, golf tournaments and other fundraisers.

"We're good citizens, and now the FDA says, 'No, no, no. No more charity,' " said J.C. Newman president Eric Newman. "There's never been a better example of a rogue government regulatory agency gone wild. If it weren't so serious, it would be comical."

Cigarmakers and retailers have been up in arms for months about the new regulations that impose stringent new fees and regulations on tobacco products and electronic cigarettes.

Premium cigarmakers say a new FDA review process for bringing new products to market will be lengthy and costly and could kill their industry. They argue that premium cigars should not be lumped in with traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes, also known as vape pens.

Adding insult to that injury, cigar companies say, is the chilling effect on charitable giving.

Some in the industry say a provision in the new FDA rules that forbids handing out free samples of tobacco products could apply to donated cigars. What's more, an existing rule under the Tobacco Control Act that forbids "the charitable distribution of tobacco products" now apparently applies to cigars, said Anna Wiand, a lawyer who specializes in regulated products for the GrayRobinson law firm in Tampa.

"It would now be unwise to make those donations with that express charitable donation prohibition," Wiand said. "I don't know how much of a priority this would be for the FDA, but it quite clearly is a prohibition under the regulatory regime we have."

Cigar companies across the country are heeding that advice, said Jeff Borysiewicz, president and founder of the Corona Cigar Co. and co-founder of Cigar Rights of America.

"Without a doubt, it's nationwide," said Borysiewicz, who reluctantly put a stop to his own company's giving. "A lot of times these things get determined when someone is given a citation, so at this point, everyone's being cautious."

In an emailed statement, an FDA spokesman did not address specific questions from the Tampa Bay Times about how the new rules on cigars apply to charitable giving.

"We encourage any newly regulated manufacturer or retailer to contact the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products with any specific questions regarding their responsibilities in complying with the rule," the statement says.

• • •

With the approach of the new rules' effective date on Aug. 8, Thompson's Taylor rushed to mail more than 40 packages of donated cigars to U.S. troops abroad. She also sent Van Trees one more shipment — four pallets of boxes, or about 6,000 cigars, which Van Trees hopes will last a year or so.

But the requests from troops keep popping up in Taylor's inbox. She hasn't been able to bring herself to respond yet.

"I'll have to tell them … " she said, and trailed off.

"That we're sorry your federal government did this to you," said Franzblau, Thompson's chief operating officer.

"I literally start crying when I start to send the messages," Taylor said.

"It's time," Franzblau said.

Taylor sighed her assent.

"It's time."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Pat and Harvey Partridge visit Waiheke Island in New Zealand in April. Courtesy of David Partridge
    The husband-and-wife team founded St. Petersburg’s Partridge Animal Hospital were known for their compassion and kindness to all creatures great and small.
  2. The lobby bar at the Current Hotel on Rocky Point in Tampa serves eclectic cocktails and locally brewed coffee. SARA DINATALE  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Take a look inside Tampa Bay’s newest boutique hotel.
  3. The Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee. SCOTT KEELER  |  Times
    The Tampa Bay Partnership, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Tampa-Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. filed a brief in the Florida Supreme Court.
  4. Tech Data's headquarters in Largo. TD AGENCY  |  Courtesy of Tech Data
    Largo’s Tech Data would be the fourth in as many years, though the potential sale seems far from a done deal.
  5. Former WTSP-Ch. 10 news anchor Reginald Roundtree, shown here with his wife Tree, filed a lawsuit Friday against his former employer alleging he was fired because of age discrimination and retaliation. [Times file] WTSP  |  FACEBOOK
    The suit comes after a federal agency took no action on age discrimination complaints he had filed.
  6. Guests of the Flying Bridge at the Tradewinds Resort, which is now under new ownership. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times]
    The new owner says he plans to keep its management and 1,100 employees.
  7. The University of South Florida has earned national accolades for its push to raise graduation rates. Student loan debt in Florida is so crushing that it makes it hard to afford a house.
    Staggering debt loads make it hard to buy a home.
  8. The “nakation” — aka clothing-optional tourism — is becoming one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry. Shirking that outer layer at nude beaches and resorts and even on clothing-optional cruises has become the vacation choice du jour for hundreds of thousands of free-spirited Americans. AP Photo/Caleb Jones
    It’s certainly bringing in big bucks in Florida, where the state’s tourism department reports that nude recreation made a $7.4 billion economic impact in the Sunshine State last year.
  9. Bay area gas prices increased by double digits since last week, according to AAA, The Auto Club Group. Pictured is a man in St. Petersburg filling up in 2017. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times (2017)] SHADD, DIRK  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Oil refineries’ seasonal maintenance, as well as wholesale gas prices, pushed prices higher.
  10. Former Morgan Stanley investment broker Ami Forte has been permanently barred from working in the broker-dealer industry as a result of thousands of improper trades that were made in the accounts of Home Shopping Network co-founder Roy Speer during the last months of his life. (AP photo | 2016) TAMARA LUSH  |  Associated Press
    Financial regulators barred brokers Ami Forte and Charles Lawrence as a result of more than 2,800 trades on Roy Speer’s accounts in 2011 and 2011.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement