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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Major deadline arrives in fight to save last cigar factory

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Published:   |   Updated: August 8, 2014 at 09:05 AM

If you have driven along Interstate 4 past Ybor City recently, you have probably seen the humongous “Save This Factory” banner hanging from the clock tower at the J.C. Newman Cigar Co.

It’s the classic battle between a small local industry and faceless federal bureaucrats who want new regulations the company says would put it out of business.

In a 67-page proposal that could basically have been titled “Sorry, Sucker,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration laid out a series of requirements for companies like Newman. The clincher: They would have to do 5,000 hours of expensive scientific testing before even applying for approval on any new product line. The FDA would then decide if they could proceed.

Without new products, company president Eric Newman said the last cigar factory in the Cigar City would soon have to shutter its doors.

That’s why today is kind of a big deal.

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It’s the final chance for public input on this issue. The company set up a website — savecigarcity.com — which has a link to the FDA comment area. After midnight Friday, public comments close, and we wait.

It could take several months to a year for the FDA to issue a final ruling.

There were more than 72,000 comments as of Thursday.

There used to be more than 150 cigar factories in Tampa. Newman, which has been around for 119 years, is the final one still operating here. That story line took wings once the word got out about what was happening.

This has morphed from a local story of tradition and jobs to a national one focused on Tampa’s heritage and way of life.

The Associated Press sent the news all over the country. Industry publications have covered it extensively. The New York Times wrote a story.

NBC’s “Today” show spent a lot of time in the factory recently but had to pull the plug after the Ebola virus story broke in Atlanta. Fox News and National Public Radio had reports.

Politicians, including Florida U.S. senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, plus U.S. representatives Kathy Castor and Dennis Ross, have pleaded Newman’s case and the approximately 130 jobs that could be lost if the regulations go into effect.

“We’ve even heard from consumers who don’t smoke cigars. We are just thrilled that people have banded together,” Newman said. “There is a basic sense of fair play about this. You know, in David vs. Goliath, everyone pulls for David.”

Under the FDA proposal, so-called premium cigars costing at least $10 would be exempt. Most of the Newman product line sells for less than that, so it begs the question of what the feds are really trying to accomplish.

If they want to curb youth smoking, hey, I’m all in. But when is the last time you heard of kids sneaking out back after school to smoke a $7 cigar? Um, never?

The FDA’s intent, it seems, is to target the mass-marketed cigars you see in convenience stores. Yes, kids might be attracted to those. The kind of person who smokes a J.C. Newman cigar is more likely to light up in the backyard after dinner and unwind from a long day.

So that’s why you get notes like this one sent to the FDA, pulled from the comment section on its website:

“(The cigar industry) is a part of the history and culture of Tampa. Please do not regulate it away. There are so few family businesses left in this world.

“... The Newmans, in particular, have been a kind and contributing family to our city and our state. You are destroying good people. Please do not do this.”

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