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Friday, May 24, 2019
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Ybor City's Cigar Heritage Festival aims to keep 'Cigar City' smoky

YBOR CITY - With temperatures reaching the mid-80s underneath hazy gray clouds, it felt more like Sunday's Cigar Heritage Festival was held in an overstuffed Seventh Avenue humidor than in Ybor City's Centennial Park.

But the unseasonably sticky weather didn't prevent crowds - estimated to top 9,600 - from spilling into Ybor's brick streets surrounding the annual event, which since 2016 has held the title of "largest attended cigar festival in the world."

This year, there were more pressing matters for the cigar aficionados to discuss than box-pressed or round, shade-grown or sun, lancero or Presidente.

Since 2016, the few cigar manufacturers that remain in America's "Cigar City" have been locked in battle with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over its decision to place the same regulations on premium cigars as those enforced for cigarettes, vaporizers, and other mass-produced tobacco products.

The Trump administration brought about a small victory for cigar manufacturers last year, when the FDA announced it would review its decision to include premium cigars in its regulatory expansion over tobacco. The agency accepted public comments on the ruling this year, from March to the start of July, said Daniel Trope, senior director of federal government affairs for the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association.

Since then, the issue has stalled in Washington, D.C. When the FDA released its "unified regulatory agenda" last month, Trope said premium cigars were given "long-term status," meaning changes weren't included in the FDA's plans for this year.

"Premium cigars are essentially in regulatory purgatory," Trope said.

Trope joined the trade association's executive director, Scott Pearce, at a shaded picnic table on Sunday, where the two registered hundreds of festival goers to join lobbying efforts through the IPCPR's new website, CigarAction.org.

The group aims to help premium cigar manufacturers like J.C. Newman Cigars, the only functioning cigar factory left of the more than 150 factories that once called Ybor City home. Even though J.C. Newman doesn't hand-roll cigars like the smaller shops on Seventh Avenue, the company has used the same machines since it began operations in 1895, producing 15 cigars a minute made only of fermented tobacco, water and vegetable glue.

Should the FDA follow through with the planned changes, J.C. Newman's owners estimated it would cost more than $30 million for its Ybor factory to comply with the product standards, health testing, warning labels and other new regulations.

"We liken it to the difference between a malt liquor and a very fine scotch," Pearce said. "The usage of these very specific types of products is very different than from the ways consumers get addicted to cigarettes."

Cigar smokers typically don't inhale smoke, and only indulge in cigars an average of once a month, he said. The CDC and FDA's own research even shows that the limited use means most cigar users experience no significant health effects, he said.

"The smoke doesn't even bother the chickens or the dogs," said Lisa Figueredo of Cigar City Magazine.

Figueredo, who helped organize Sunday's festival, is the product of generations of cigar rollers who have worked in Ybor City since her great-grandmother took a job in West Tampa rolling cigars for Cuesta Rey at just 13 years old. From the cigars themselves to their aroma, or their ornately decorated boxes, "it's a work of art. It's our history. It's our culture," Figueredo said.

"We're still fighting every day, and every day more people are joining the fight," she said. "It's a special club, and you can't take that away."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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