Tampa's last cigar factory says new regulations would kill 119-year-old business

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Proposed new requirements by the Food and Drug Administration on tobacco products that would treat cigar manufacturers like cigarette makers threatens the J.C. Newman Cigar Company, the last surviving cigar company in Tampa, which used to be known as the Cigar City.

Those new regulations would create a "stranglehold" on the company, says Eric Newman, president of the family-owned business. Newman and his brother Bobby hosted Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera and a large contingent of reporters at their business in V.M. Ybor on Wednesday morning to create more public awareness of their situation.

Among the proposed rules that the Newmans say would kill their business is a requirement of 5,000 hours of testing for any product, and charging $10 for a cigar.

"Any business is about new products," Eric Newman told reporters. "80 percent of what we sell today we didn't even make, or market, or sell 10 years ago." He says the 5,000 hours to test a new product makes sense for the Philip Morris' of the tobacco world, but not for his mom-and-pop shop, which employs 130 people.

To try to combat the policies' enaction, the Newmans have been busy rallying the public and key lawmakers to support them. They've also created a website (savecigarcity.com) where they are encouraging their supporters to contact the FDA directly.

"This is a perfect example of Barack Obama and Charlie Crist not getting it," said Lopez-Cantera while talking separately to a Fox News Channel reporter. "They've never built anything, they've never run anything. Governor Scott and my family built businesses out of nothing, so we get it," adding it shows a difference in political philosophy between Democrats and Republicans.

Lopez-Cantera didn't get that political, however, when addressing the rest of the media, though he did decry the heavy-handedness of the FDA, saying that the new regulations were a "classic case of too much government and government overstepping its bounds."

Eric Newman intentionally attempted not to be political, praising the support his company has received from Democrats like Congresswoman Kathy Castor and Senator Bill Nelson, as well as the Scott-Lopez Cantera administration. In particular, Newman was grateful for the letter that Scott and Lopez-Cantera penned to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg last week requesting that the agency drop their proposal.

Eric Newman stressed the high-end value of premium cigars, saying it's only 1 percent of the tobacco industry in the U.S. "Cigars are not like cigarettes," he said. "Cigars are like Cognac. You don't drink a Cognac like a Coca-Cola."

But while supporters of the Tampa cigar company are touting the benefits of the company and dismissing the FDA proposal, Reuters reports that the agency could have been much tougher. The news service says the White House's Office of Management and Budget deleted from the proposal an FDA analysis showing that exempting premium cigars from a proposal to require large warning labels would save manufacturers $1 million to $3 million but incur costs to public health of $32.6 million to $34.2 million.

The White House office also deleted an extensive section in which the FDA calculated how many lives would be saved by regulating cigars, as well as the value of those lives. And it deleted a similar analysis for the improvements in health that would come from dissuading people from smoking cigars, such as through warning labels.

Before speaking with reporters, the Newmans took Lopez-Cantera on a tour of their facility on 16th Street, where the Lieutenant Governor had a chance to speak with several J.C. Newman employees, all of whom urged him to do what he could to stop the regulations from taking place.

Among those he spoke with was Pablo Martin, who's worked in various cigar factories for over 40 years, having worked for Universal Cigar in Clearwater for 17 years, then Hav-a-Tampa for 19 years before being laid off when that Tampa cigar factory went under in 2009. He's been at J.C. Newman ever since. A significant factor in Hav-A-Tampa's demise was a federal tobacco tax hike that took effect to pay for the State Children's Health Insurance Program, raising the five-cent tax on large cigars to 40 cents. The S-CHIP program provides health insurance to 11 million low-income children. 

The FDA is asking for public opinion until Aug. 8 on whether premium hand-rolled cigars rolled with a tobacco leaf should be exempt from agency oversight.

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