Today in Ybor City, Florida—once the epicenter of American handmade cigar production—Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) led a Congressional field hearing called “Keeping Small, Premium Cigar Businesses Rolling.” The event, held at Hillsborough Community College’s Ybor City campus, marked the first time Congress has held a hearing dedicated to premium cigars.
“The greatest threat to my business,” said Jeff Borysiewicz, the owner of Florida cigar retailer Corona Cigar Co., “is the heavy hand of government regulations being pushed forward by the FDA. … It’s an industry that can get squeezed out of business very easily.”
Borysiewicz spoke about the difficult nature of dealing with these new FDA regulations. “One of the most appealing aspects of the cigar industry is the diversity of our suppliers,” said Borysiewicz. “FDA regulations will narrow our manufacturers down to just a few suppliers.” He said companies now need “an army of lawyers” to deal with the FDA.
Drew Newman of J.C. Newman Cigar Co., which makes cigars in Tampa, spoke of his company’s “136 hard-working and dedicated employees.” Premium cigars, he said, “are just like fine wines,” enhanced by aging, created by blending and prone to the eccentricities of nature that change from crop to crop, vintage to vintage.
“None of this is standardized—it’s an art, a tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation to generation,” said Newman, the great-grandson of company founder J.C. Newman, who started making cigars in the United States in 1895.
Premium cigars, said Newman, account for a mere 0.7 percent of the entire U.S. tobacco industry. “We’re a tiny sliver of the tobacco world,” he said. “Unlike big tobacco, the American premium cigar industry is made up almost entirely of small, family businesses like ours,” sold in many “mom and pop” family stores.
Newman said FDA guidelines could force companies such as his to pay $ 250,000 to get a new cigar on the market. “Our industry” he said, “simply cannot absorb the costs of regulation.”
Newman and Borysiewicz both spoke about how premium cigars are not marketed to youth. “I can tell you firsthand kids aren’t coming into our cigar shop to buy cigars,” Borysiewicz said, citing a 2017 FDA-funded study published by the New England Journal of Medicine that found that few children in America had ever smoked a premium cigar.
“No one,” he said, “wants to sell tobacco to a minor.”
Borysiewicz’s statement was supported by Dr. Brad Rodu, endowed chair, Tobacco Harm Reduction Research, University of Louisville, who also testified at the hearing. “Americans are grossly uninformed about the risks of cigarettes as compared to cigars and smokeless tobacco. Patterns of use are completely different,” he said.
Rubio concurred. “The statistics bear this out,” he said. “Among youth, premium cigar [usage]—they couldn’t even score it.”
“That’s correct,” said Dr. Rodu.
Dr. Rodu also pointed out that moderate smoking of premium, handmade cigars had little impact on health, according to studies. “At one to two cigars a day, there was virtually no health impact,” said Dr. Rodu. “Premium cigars are just consumed in an entirely different manner than machine-made cigars and cigarettes.”
Newman spoke about the occasional nature of most handmade cigar smokers. “One of the reasons our consumers smoke so few of them, is they use them for enjoyment, playing golf, going fishing, or by a fire pit. We live in a fast-paced world. A premium cigar is something you light up and enjoy just for relaxation. You can’t rush a premium cigar,” said Newman. “It’s a way to slow things down. … From start to finish, it’s all handcrafted, and there just aren’t many things like that left in the world anymore.”
Rubio, who is a premium cigar smoker, said he feels that most people don’t fully understand the ramifications of FDA regulation on the premium cigar industry, or the industry itself. “It’s a niche within a broader sector. It’s tough to explain it to people,” he said.
“If this goes into effect, there are not going to be many premium cigar manufacturers left,” Rubio said. The senator asked the panelists if premium cigars could end up being a “contraband product” with unchecked FDA regulation. Newman said it was a possibility, saying the government could “squash this industry like a bug. … It’s what keeps us up at night, and worries us. We urgently need relief,” said Newman.
The Cigar Association of America issued a statement about the hearing. “On behalf of CAA, we want to thank Sen. Rubio for the terrific work he has done on behalf of the cigar industry and premium cigars, and we welcome his continued advocacy on our behalf,” said Javier Estades, chairman of the CAA. “Never has the need for Sen. Rubio’s strong voice been greater than it is today.”
Said Rubio in closing: “We’re going to do everything we possibly can to keep [FDA overregulation] from happening.”