J.C. Newman Cigar Co. is one of a kind, literally.
Founded in 1895 by Julius Caesar Newman, a Hungarian immigrant, the Tampa-based family business is the last of what was once 150 “Cigar City” factories.
The business has outlasted 19 U.S. presidents, two world wars, a Cuban economic embargo that crushed many of its competitors and, most recently, the Great Recession.
Now, the company is fighting for its life.
A new government regulation aimed at curbing youth access to tobacco by stomping out affordable cigars effectively would extinguish the Newman family legacy—and its 130 jobs.
“It’s totally unfair the way the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is approaching us,” said Eric Newman, the cigar company’s president.
“Cigars are to Tampa what wine is to Napa Valley and what automobiles are to Michigan,” he said.
“If you know anyone whose family has been in Tampa for three or four generations, chances are someone was working in the cigar industry because they were the only jobs around.”
The company’s success is in no small part due to its market niche.
J.C. Newman’s, known locally by its signature clock tower, El Reloj, uses 1930s vintage equipment to roll cigars that sell for $10 or less. They’re an affordable luxury, however, that does not qualify for a “premium cigar” regulatory exemption.
Despite the quality of tobacco and the factory’s traditional methods, the company’s cigars are simply too inexpensive for government approval, and its machines don’t meet the technical definition of producing a handmade product.
“Not everyone has $10 or more to spend on a cigar,” Newman said. “It takes us four months to teach a cigar maker how to use our hand-operated machines. We’re making cigars the same way my grandfather made them after in the 1930s.”
In 2009, Congress gave the FDA the power to regulate the tobacco industry. After first cracking down on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, federal regulators now are moving to e-cigarettes, pipe and hookah tobacco, and cigars.
The problem, Newman said, is that treating cigars as if they’re cigarettes is a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t make much sense.
“I don’t blame them,” said Newman. “They’re job is to regulate youth access to tobacco, and it’s our job to explain to them how totally unfair it would be to regulate our industry the same way they regulate cigarettes. It’s apples and oranges.”