TAMPA, Fla. – Some unforgettable places waft into memory on a scent. For Floridians, it may be the sweetness of mangoes in Miami, the salt-sprinkled air of the Keys, the pungency of the Everglades.
In Ybor City, a neighborhood in Tampa, history is cloaked in the woody, earthen notes of a cigar, the product that helped define this once-quiet town and propel it well into the 20th century. Today, the 150 cigar factory sites that dotted this historic neighborhood once redolent with the aroma of tobacco have faded away, one by one, done in by cigarettes, health concerns, the trade embargo on Cuba and competition from abroad. Many were torn down; others stand there empty or recycled for more profitable ventures.
There is one exception: On the northern side of Ybor City sits the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. factory, a family-owned business tucked inside a classic brick building nicknamed El Reloj, a nod to its clock tower. Both have defied the maw of modernity to outlive a century. But now J.C. Newman faces its biggest threat: the possibility that the Food and Drug Administration may introduce strict, expensive regulations on cigars that the Newman brothers, who operate the company, say could close the last working cigar factory in town.
“We have gone through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cuban trade embargo, smoking bans, excessive taxation and competition from low-wage countries,” said Eric Newman, who with his brother Bobby, owns and operates the country’s oldest premium cigar business, founded in 1895 in Cleveland by his grandfather, Julius Caeser Newman. “The toughest challenge of all these is the FDA regulations.”
If the factory closes, Tampa would lose its most historic link to the city’s 150-year-old cigar legacy, a blow that many agree would be deeply felt. It is not hard to see why. Inside El Reloj, cigar workers, most of them women, sit behind 1930s-era machines and lay a long tobacco leaf on a metal plate, cutting it before it slides off to be rolled. In another room, women push pedals on machines from the 1910s that strip the stem from the leaf (the women are indelicately called strippers). The process has not changed since the 1930s when Newman’s grandfather bought his first set of machines; two decades later he moved his cigar factory to Ybor City from Cleveland.
The factory is dominated by rooms with broad windows facing north and south, and its original floors, barrels, ceilings and smells make it easy to reel back the decades to a time when immigrants from Cuba and Spain rolled cigars by hand to the voice of a lector reading from a book or newspaper to entertain them.
All of that is now at risk.
In keeping with a 2009 law granting the FDA more regulatory power over tobacco products, the agency is proposing to oversee additional products including cigars and e-cigarettes. The aim is to regulate cigars as the government does cigarettes to try to discourage minors (and people, in general) from buying them in places like convenience stores and acquiring the habit, which can increase the risk of some cancers.
“Tobacco remains the leading cause of death and disease in this country,” said the FDA commissioner, Margaret A. Hamburg, in the agency’s announcement of the proposed new rules.
Two proposals are on the table, and both would hurt the factory’s prospects, Eric Newman said. The proposals are still open to public comment until early August, at which point the agency will begin to finalize the rules.
The first would apply cigarette-related regulations to all cigars, no matter the kind. This would most likely require that cigars, some of which are now flavored, to undergo thousands of hours of expensive and lengthy testing to meet FDA approval and could mandate modern manufacturing standards the aging machines might not be able to meet.
The second proposed regulation would exempt so-called premium cigars from the new rules, a move that has the potential to affect an estimated 150 U.S. companies, including the Newman factory, said Wallace Reyes, a researcher who until recently ran a cigar company here. Premium handmade cigars are not mass produced or sold in convenience stores and contain no additives.
But although the Newman Co., which also distributes Arturo Fuente cigars, sells premium cigars made in Tampa, the FDA is considering a stricter definition of premium that would exclude them from the exemption.
The Newman factory’s premium cigars do not fit the strict FDA-proposed criteria for premium because they are not wholly handmade, do not sell for more than $10, are a mixed blend and do not use whole leaf tobacco. The company’s vintage machines work far slower than the more common high-speed ones, but they are still machines, and thus most likely not covered under the stricter exemption standards.
The cigar industry’s influence on Tampa’s trajectory, from a town of 3,000 to a notable city, is hard to overstate.
“When the cigar industry relocated to the Ybor City area, it basically transformed the economy of the state from agriculture to industrial,” said Reyes, who published a book on cigars last December. “By 1896, this was the mecca of the cigar industry.”
The fight to save the factory has galvanized both Democrats and Republicans, among them Gov. Rick Scott of Florida. They are lobbying the FDA to look carefully at the provisions they say could unfairly exclude the cigars made in the Newman’s Tampa factory from the protection the agency may offer premium cigars.
“It goes to the heart and soul of Tampa,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., who is from the area and introduced a bill to try to protect premium cigar manufacturers. “This would be a blow to our cultural history.”