The product that helped define Tampa will face new competition under an executive order issued on Friday by the Obama administration.
The directive lifts the $100 limit on Cuban cigars that travelers can bring into the U.S., which could spell trouble for the last operating cigar factory in Tampa.
“Cigars are to Tampa what wine is to Sonoma and Napa Valley; what automobiles are to Detroit, and what Mickey Mouse is to Orlando,” said Eric Newman, president of J.C. Newman Cigar Company, in Ybor City. “Cigars have been the heart and soul of this community for 130 years."
Newman says Cuban cigar makers would not have to pay excise taxes or adhere to strict new FDA regulations. Those rules include government approval of new cigar blends, requiring larger warning labels on cigar boxes and suspending companies from donating cigars to charities and to soldiers overseas.
“These Cuban cigars come in scot-free, but we pay a 40 cents excise tax," said Newman. "So what's happening is our government is protecting the Cuban cigar maker and screwing the American worker; the American cigar maker. For heaven's sakes, give us a level playing field.”
Bills have been introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House that call for exempting the "premium cigar" industry from those guidelines. That generally means cigars made by human hands from natural tobacco, like the ones rolled at J.C. Newman Cigar Company.