FDA rules could snuff out Central Florida cigar makers
As Emille Mustafa puffed a plume of smoke into the air and it disappeared, she worried her family cigar business may soon fade away, too.
Costly new federal rules for cigars, electronic cigarettes and other smoking products that had been relatively unregulated could snuff out small cigar makers such as Córdoba & Morales, a Casselberry operation owned by Mustafa and her Cuban-born husband, Azarias Mustafa Córdoba.
If the rules go into effect, "it would put us out of business," she said of their company, launched five years ago.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said in May that it would begin treating cigars like cigarettes and chewing tobacco by slapping larger warning labels on the products to alert smokers about nicotine's addictive properties and the cancer and health risks they pose.
The regulations also will require that cigar makers obtain potentially costly FDA approval before they could begin selling new blends.
Congress gave the FDA authority to regulate all tobacco products in the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, and the agency immediately applied the law to cigarettes and smokeless tobacco before drafting new rules for electronic smokes, nicotine gels and cigars.
"We have more to do to help protect Americans from the dangers of tobacco and nicotine, especially our youth," said Sylvia Burwell, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, in announcing the changes, which will take effect Aug. 8 if a federal judge does not step in.
Cigar trade groups sued the FDA this month, alleging the agency's new rules wrongfully force new products to meet stricter regulations than cigars already on the market.
Some rules were aimed at extinguishing the growing popularity of e-cigarettes. The battery-operated devices don't burn tobacco but heat liquids containing nicotine into vapors, which can be inhaled. Some liquids also have candy- or fruit-flavorings that appeal to younger smokers. The law says you must be 18 or older to buy e-cigarettes.
But the rules also apply to top-dollar, hand-rolled cigars coveted by connoisseurs for their distinctive scents and blends of tobaccos.
"It's government over-reach," said Jeff Borysiewicz, founder of Corona Cigar Co., which carved a niche as an online cigar distributor based in Ocoee before expanding sales with cigar bars in Central Florida. "Nobody's chain-smoking two boxes of cigars a day. You don't even inhale them."
A box of 20 premium cigars like Córdoba & Morales hand-crafted "Puro Pinar" or "19th Hole" costs more than $200.
The cigar industry has pleaded for reconsideration, but the FDA concluded there was no public health justification for exempting premium cigars from the rules. It noted cigar sales increased while cigarette use has declined.
"All cigars pose serious negative health risks," FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum said. "For example, large cigars can deliver as much as 10 times the nicotine, two times the tar and more than five times the carbon monoxide of a filtered cigarette."
But seven U.S. senators, including both of Florida's, sent a letter last month to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf expressing their disappointment with the new rules.
Some rules will be phased in, including a crucial one requiring pre-market FDA approval for new blends, a process that could be both expensive and lengthy. Cigar trade groups estimate the new application and testing fees could cost some small manufacturers as much as $1 million.
Florida has an estimated 200 cigar makers with more than 100 in Miami, according to industry experts. Orlando has about 10.
The FDA estimates that a shop like Córdoba & Morales, which produces about 150,000 cigars a year, could pay between $278,000 and $397,000 in application fees and other compliance costs. Those expenses could be passed onto consumers, meaning higher prices for smokers.
Any change in blends could require a new application and more fees. The FDA estimates an average cost of $6,500 per application.
"For the little guys and new guys, it's not going to be economically feasible to pay all these fees and then pray it gets approved," Borysiewicz said.
It would apply to all of Córdoba & Morales' cigars, made the way Azarias Mustafa Córdoba was taught by his grandmother Celestina, who was known as the "six-finger lady" because she always held a cigar between her fingers.
Borysiewicz, who grows tobacco on a farm in Clermont, said he would have to pull his Florida Sun Grown cigars because they are "new" under the rule. The FDA classifies anything introduced after Feb. 15, 2007, as new.
"One of the things that makes the industry interesting, that keeps it fresh ... is the fact that a good, a really good cigar is a hand-crafted product, blended with different tobaccos from around the world. Cigar-makers are always trying different things, like a good chef,'' Borysiewicz said. "The way this new rule is right now, that part of the industry would go away."
Felberbaum said the FDA, recognizing cost may be challenging to small shops, is taking several steps to help them through the process.
But for Mustafa Córdoba, losing his business to government intervention would be ironic.
His family fled western Cuba for the United States half a century ago because Fidel Castro's government took their tobacco farm.
"It's kind of strange, but it's true. It's like what happened in Cuba," he said. "The family was left with nothing."