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Big, new warning labels may doom Tampa's cigar box art

When is a cigar box more than a cigar box? When it holds premium handmade cigars.

For more than a century, these boxes — decorated with designs, pictures and scenes symbolic of the brand — have doubled as art pieces that aficionados display in their homes long after the last stogie is smoked.

This may change as of May 10, 2018.

That's when a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation kicks in requiring that any cigar box include a health warning label covering 30 percent of two principal display panels, defined by the agency as those most likely to be seen by a consumer.

The cigar industry believes this means the outside top cover with its emphasis on the brand name and the inside top cover, where the most intricate artwork typically is placed.

Cigar shops often open a box to display the interior art.

"Premium cigars are a celebratory product given as a gift on special occasions. We keep the box as a commemoration and because they double as artwork," said Jeff Borysiewicz, co-founder of Cigar Rights of America.

"You slap a label that covers a third of that art and it is no longer art. It's the end of an era."

For Eric Newman, third-generation owner of the 121-year-old J.C. Newman Cigar Co. in Ybor City, this is personal.

Among his favorite cigar boxes is the Diamond Crown Julius Caeser, named in honor of his grandfather and company founder Julius Caeser Newman.

The inside cover of each box is adorned with a picture depicting a 20-year-old "J.C." Newman — his age when he founded the company — dressed in a purple toga and donning the fig leaf crown made famous by Roman Emperor Julius Caesar.

"The FDA is saying put a mask on him," Newman said. "With the way the box looks now, that 30 percent will cover his face."

The image can also be shrunk or pushed into a corner to make way for the new warning labels.

"That will destroy the art," Newman said. "Who will want to look at that?"

The new labeling is more fallout from new FDA regulations on cigars that took effect Aug. 8.

Another is a review process for bringing new products to market that industry leaders say is too lengthy and costly.

Cigar manufacturers must submit new box designs to the FDA by May 10, 2017.

J.C. Newman Cigar Co. will have to redesign more than 90 of its boxes.

"That could be as simple as shrinking a logo or as complicated as a complete overhaul," Newman said.

It might be argued to the FDA that the principal display panels are ones that do not include art, such as side panels. But Newman believes such an attempt would fail.

"You look at this box and it says sophisticated," Newman said, noting a Diamond Crown Julius Caeser box made of clean black leather with a simple top bearing only the title of the cigar in gold letters.

"Soon it might be ugly."

The largest cigar manufacturers have been putting warnings on box tops since 2000, covering about 5 percent of the area, Newman estimates.

If a manufacturer chooses not to place the new labels on the inside cover, cigar shops would not be allowed to display the open box.

"That is a dumb rule," said Don Barco, owner of King Corona Cigars in Ybor City. "You need to open the boxes so customers can see the cigars. It's like asking someone to buy a bottle of wine that is still hidden in a box."

Anna Wiand, a lawyer who specializes in regulated products for the GrayRobinson law firm in Tampa, contends the inside cover should be considered as an advertisement and not a principal display panel.

This is an "area where the existing regulations may not easily conform to the nuanced cigar industry," she said.

Still, under the new guidelines, cigar advertisements also must include a warning label that covers 20 percent of its space.

Cigar box art dates back more than 150 years, said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center.

"This was a time before television when visual advertising was making your product eye-catching," he said. "Cigar manufacturers knew that to sell their cigars, they needed to make their box the most ornate."

A cigar box can tell a lot about the era in which it was created, Kite-Powell said.

James Beauchamp "Champ" Clark, for instance, was a politician on the national stage from the late 1800s through early 1900s — so renowned that his photo was placed on boxes of cigars rolled in Tampa even though he never lived here.

One of Kite-Powell's favorite boxes is a brand called USA Cuba Cigars. On the inside cover is a map of Florida and Cuba with the cities of Tampa and Havana enlarged to prominence, recognizing the close link the cities shared at the time.

The inside art of Newman's Julius Caeser cigars tells the story of its namesake's history with Roman numerals flanking his image.

MDCCCLXXV, or 1875, was the year the Newman patriarch was born, for example, and MCMLVIII, or 1958, was the year he died.

As for the spelling of his middle name, Caeser rather that Caesar, he was told to add a middle name when he immigrated from Hungary and the name he chose was misspelled on his papers.

"To the FDA, these are just boxes to place cigars," Newman said. "But they are part of the tradition and culture of this industry. It's being taken from us."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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