FDA Rules Could Snuff Out ‘Cigar City’
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants to add new regulations to additional tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, pipe tobacco and cigars.
The proposed regulations are not going down well in Tampa's Ybor City, which has been rolling out cigars since 1886.
At the J.C. Newman Cigar Company, the machines hum and vibrate enough to shake the old wooden floor boards.
Tuptim Ploysawon, who does quality control at the factory, is one of 130 employees who worry about what could happen if the FDA imposes regulations on cigars.
"I want to cry, I hope they can help us to keep this factory open forever, you know, for everybody,” Ploysaon said. “We just don't want to walk on the street like we're homeless."
Bobby Newman and his brother Eric are third-generation owners of the J.C. Newman Cigar Company in Ybor City.
"We don't want to have FDA regulate our products we make here because it could close down the factory,” Newman said.
In a town that was built on cigar manufacturing, it's the last one left in a place that once boasted 150 cigar factories. The three-story brick building has a huge clock tower that that can be seen from I-4. That tower is where they used to watch for the tobacco ships coming in from Cuba, so they could be the first in the harbor to bid on the best tobacco leaves.
Today, the owners worry the regulations from the FDA would close the last cigar manufacturer in the "Cigar City."
"The FDA has told us it could take up to 5,000 hours if we want to come out with a new product, we have to have testing, the cost would be enormous."
During a tour of the J.C. Newman factory, Florida's Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera said the proposed cigar regulations from the FDA are "a classic example of too much government."
"The FDA didn't even exist in 1895. Is it possible that these guys and their family, over 119 years, have figured out how to produce a premium cigar at a lower price but at good quality? I believe they have,” says Lopez-Cantera. “And it's their consumers, it's their customers that decide what is a premium cigar. It shouldn't be the FDA.”
According to the FDA, the new rules would help reduce the rate of death and disease from tobacco use, and "cigars are known causes of serious negative health effects, including cancer and heart disease."
The agency can choose to regulate all cigars, or define a subset that would be exempt from the regulations.
Newman disagrees with regulation by the FDA, saying premium cigars are different from other tobacco products.
"These are not sold in convenience stores, they're only used by adults,” Newman said. “What the big concern was for Congress and the FDA is youth access to tobacco."
He said J.C. Newman cigars sell for $1 to $2 each, so one proposal being considered by the FDA wouldn't do his factory any good. That's because one option is to exempt cigars that go for at least $10 dollars.
"The current evidence we have is that increasing the price of tobacco is the single most effective intervention to reduce consumption,” said Brian King, the senior advisor for the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He says there are three types of cigars on the market: premium cigars, flavored little cigars and cigarillos. He says two percent of adults smoke cigars every day or on some days. For high school students, the rate is much higher, at about 12.6 percent.
"We can't tease out the specific types of cigars based on the questions that we ask, but we do know that cigar use is quite high,” King said.
Cigar factory owner Newman insisted his family's product is only used by adults.
“And also, only occasionally. The average premium cigar smoker smokes less than one cigar a week, so it's not an addictive situation,” Newman said. “Our cigars are used like cognac, for celebration, for occasional use.”
He said whether the J.C. Newman family tradition will continue is up to the FDA.
The agency is taking public comment on its proposed rule through Aug. 8.