Around the Nation
2:21 pm
Tue July 15, 2014

Fate Of Decades-Old Cigar Factory Dangles By A Phrase

Originally published on Tue July 15, 2014 5:23 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUSIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Tampa was once known as Cigar City. Today, there's just one cigar factory left. The J.C. Newman Company makes cigars in Tampa the way it has for more than 80 years on machines made in the 1930s. Now, as NPR's Greg Allen reports, the company's owners and employees are worried new federal regulations may put them out of business.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The neighborhood in Tampa is known as Ybor City, named after the Spanish-born cigar maker who first set up shop here. It's filled with three-story brick buildings built in the 19th and early 20th century as cigar factories. At the J.C. Newman Cigar Company, Shanda Lee is the marking director.

SHANDA LEE: At one time, there were 150 cigar manufacturers here in Tampa. We truly were the Cigar City. Unfortunately, we are the last operating cigar factory in Cigar City now.

ALLEN: There are still some boutique companies rolling handmade cigars in Tampa. But over the years, Tampa cigar companies moved their production offshore to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Honduras - all, that is, except for J.C. Newman. The J.C. Newman factory floor looks like something from another era, and in fact, it is. Workers sit at cigar-rolling machines that Lee says were built more than 80 years ago.

LEE: You can see what she's doing here. You've got the filler tobacco that goes in. And the machine actually bunches it and creates the inside of the cigar.

ALLEN: We says J.C. Newman uses good quality tobacco for its binder and filler - the ingredients that go inside the cigar. The machine operator then places a whole tobacco leaf - the wrapper - on a pad and finishes rolling the cigar.

LEE: You can see once again - excellent quality tobacco from the best growers in the world.

ALLEN: The J.C. Newman Company calls them premium cigars that are made on a machine. But that's where the company and the federal Food and Drug Administration disagree. For the first time ever, the FDA is set to begin regulating cigars. Congress gave the federal agency authority over cigarettes in 2009, and said, the FDA could write regulations to control other tobacco products.

New rules proposed by the agency have gained attention mostly for the restrictions they set on electronic cigarettes. But they also applied to cigars with a big assumption. The FDA is considering exempting from the rules what it calls premium cigars and defines premium as a handmade cigar the costs at least $10 each. Lee notes that definition leaves out J.C. Newman's machine-made cigars that tobacco stores sell for one or $2.

LEE: We are the only company in America still making cigars like this on these antique machines. So unfortunately, we're in danger of being shut down as a result of a definition.

ALLEN: J.C. Newman executives are concerned about regulations that would require thousands of hours of testing and FDA approval for any new products. They also worry the FDA could require them to update their 80-year-old manufacturing process. On J.C. Newman's clock tower, there's a banner. It reads, save this factory.

Many have responded. Florida's governor has sent a letter to the FDA. So have members of Congress, including Kathy Castor, who represents the Tampa area. All are asking the FDA to extend the premium cigar exemption to include those made at J.C. Newman's factory. Castor says, these are tobacco products marketed to adults, not children, sold only at special tobacco shops that are smoked occasionally.

CONGRESSMAN KATHY CASTOR: We think it's appropriate for FDA to train their sights on the products that really are marketed to kids, that are smoked with a frequency that would cause addiction. And at the same time, they can save the jobs in the Tampa Bay area.

ALLEN: And its proposed rule, the FDA cites the well-documented health risks associated with cigar-smoking. Many public health groups are lobbying the FDA to oppose any exemption for cigars, no matter how they're made, how much they cost or whom they're marketed to. Vince Willmore with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says, this is one of the first major rules the FDA has proposed since Congress gave it authority over tobacco five years ago.

VINCE WILLMORE: Which is why we think it is so critical that FDA not include any exemptions in this rule, that it would set a really terrible precedent. That if they do exempt some tobacco products now, it will only encourage tobacco companies to come back and try and get even more loopholes in the future.

ALLEN: The FDA is accepting comments on the new regulations until next month. It may be a year before any new rules take effect. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.