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  1. Opinion

Congress must act to save America's cigar industry from going up in smoke | Marco Rubio

Ybor’s last cigar factory is J.C. Newman Cigar Co. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Jul. 5

Throughout my time representing the people of Florida, and now as chairman of the U.S. Senate Small Business Committee, I've seen firsthand the incredible impact and contributions that small businesses have on our communities. Our small businesses don't just employ millions of Americans around the country, they are the lifeblood of our cities and towns — the fiber holding our communities together and defining their character.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Tampa's historic Ybor City, which has been home to premium cigar manufacturers for more than 150 years. These family-owned small businesses pride themselves on crafting high-quality, handmade products. They are also a symbol of the Cuban community's rich cultural history in Florida.

Today, Ybor City has just one premium cigar factory remaining: J.C. Newman Cigar Co. The oldest family-owned premium cigar maker in the United States, J.C. Newman has been in business for 124 years, spanning four generations. Unfortunately, Ybor City's last remaining premium cigar factory is on the verge of going up in smoke.

A 2016 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rule finalized by the Obama administration now threatens the livelihood of America's premium cigar manufacturers and retailers, including J.C. Newman. Under this rule, premium cigar manufacturers would be required to regulate the manufacture, import, packaging, labeling, advertisement, promotion, sale and distribution of premium cigars.

The rule was intended to protect children from cigarettes and other tobacco products marketed to youth. I agree that children should not be targeted for tobacco consumption. However, the federal government's own research proves what we already knew — children are not smoking hand-rolled, premium cigars and those manufacturers are not marketing premium cigars to kids. This rule's practical effect will be devastating for the premium cigar industry — small businesses making and selling high-quality, handmade products — that will have to spend millions of dollars to comply with the same regulations as large companies mass producing low-quality, machine-made tobacco products. J.C. Newman, which sells about $10 million worth of products annually, estimates that it would cost three times that amount just to comply with the FDA's rule.

I support current laws which prohibit minors from smoking, but tobacco is a legal product and it's wrong for Beltway bureaucrats to snuff out small manufacturers and retailers of premium cigars. Any person who has seen machine-made cigarillos, or fat cigarettes, behind the cash register at their neighborhood gas station knows these products are vastly different than a hand-rolled premium cigar. And yet, unlike premium cigar makers, the large corporations that mass produce cigarillos have the financial means to comply with the FDA regulations so they will continue to be sold in mass quantities.

This overregulation is also unnecessary as it is already illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18. Even the FDA's own research proves that underage tobacco users are not smoking premium cigars. Premium cigar smokers account for just 0.7 percent of all adult tobacco users and the median age of a person's first regular use is 24.5 years old.

So what can we do to stop this overreach?

That was the subject of a Small Business Committee field hearing I held in Ybor City this April. We heard directly from the premium cigar industry and the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy, which makes sure federal regulations do not unnecessarily hurt small businesses. The Office of Advocacy wrote to the FDA expressing concern about the rule's economic impact on the premium cigar industry, but the FDA ignored these concerns.

If the FDA fails to recognize that the practical effect of its rule will put America's premium cigar industry out of business, Congress must act to save this iconic industry. That's why I introduced the bipartisan, bicameral Traditional Cigar Manufacturing and Small Business Jobs Preservation Act of 2019, which would exempt the premium cigar industry from the FDA's misguided rule.

Both Democrats and Republicans are focused on small business growth, increasing American manufacturing capabilities, and ensuring dignified work is available to working-class Americans. While there are many issues that currently divide my colleagues in Congress, I am hopeful that saving America's premium cigar industry from regulatory overreach is one that can unite us all.

Marco Rubio, a Republican, represents Florida in the U.S. Senate.

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