A well-meaning but poorly designed effort to keep tobacco from children could sink a niche industry and end Tampa's fabled history as a cigar-making capital. The Food and Drug Administration needs to recognize not all tobacco products are alike and that a more thoughtful approach to regulation is needed to protect the interests of public health and business.
The problem stems from the FDA's decision in 2016 to expand its regulatory authority beyond cigarettes to include all forms of tobacco. One goal was to curb the habit in younger generations by bringing greater scrutiny to the rise of cheap, flavored tobacco products, which critics blame as a gateway to smoking. But the net effect was that the costly and cumbersome regulations created for the mass-produced cigarette industry now applied across the board. That includes hand-crafted, premium cigars such as the ones rolled by the J.C. Newman Cigar Co., Tampa's last cigar factory, which was founded in 1895.
There is a legitimate public health interest in cracking down on fruit-flavored cigars and other cheap, low-end products that are popularly used by children and teens. But handcrafted, premium cigars contain no flavors and are not made, marketed or priced for the youth market. The customer base is entirely different. And the vast majority of those who smoke premium cigars do so only rarely. These are products that appeal to adults at special occasions, not to heavy or everyday users. Yet by applying the regulations in a one-size fits all, the government is misreading the very industry it wants to regulate. If applied fully, the regulations could put Newman, which employs 135 people at its historic Ybor City factory, and many other cigar companies out of business.
The Trump administration, to its credit, is reconsidering the regulations on premium cigars, a sensible step that recognizes the unique nature of this market. The at least gives the FDA a window to examine new research showing that premium cigars are distinct from other tobacco products and not aimed toward children. Last month, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia placed a temporary injunction on one rule — larger health warnings to be placed on cigar boxes. It is increasingly clear the regulations are overkill and needlessly punitive to the smallest players in the industry.
Members of Congress from Florida in both political parties have helped by weighing in on behalf of premium cigar makers. U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio and Reps. Kathy Castor of Tampa and Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor should remain steadfast in their support of sensible regulations. The FDA should move swiftly with the rulemaking process to exempt premium cigars from the new regulations. This move would be in keeping with the Trump administration's deregulation efforts and the intent of federal laws and campaigns aimed at steering young people away from a lifetime of smoking. The FDA should take the opportunity in reassessing the regulations to recognize premium cigars for what they are. That would be the right call and welcome news in a city that once was known as the cigar capital of the world.