Cigarmakers fight ban
By LEONORA LaPETER
TAMPA -- Early Tuesday, Eric Newman pulled a cigar from one of the thousands passing through a machine in his family's cigar-manufacturing facility, lit it, and drew in the smoke.
The cigar had a tight draw, like sucking on a plugged straw. So Newman asked one of his supervisors to adjust the machine so the next one would be easier to smoke.
But on July 1, after Florida's new ban on smoking in restaurants and other indoor workplaces becomes law, Newman will no longer be able to test his product. Or any of the dozens of shipments of imported cigars -- some 20-million in all -- that pass through his Ybor City plant every year.
And that, he and eight other cigar manufacturers, leaf dealers and importers say in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, would put Florida's cigar industry out of business. They want a judge to overturn the constitutional amendment that bans secondhand smoke in the workplace.
"We just want to be able to continue to run our business of cigar manufacturing no differently than we have for over a century," said Newman, whose family began making cigars 108 years ago.
"The way this law is written, it would inhibit us from testing for quality control," he said. "This isn't Russia. This isn't the Soviet Union. We want to run a business and earn a living."
Florida voters overwhelmingly approved the indoor smoking ban in November. Several health organizations, including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association of Florida, collected the signatures to get the question placed on the ballot.
The law provides exceptions for retail tobacco shops, standalone bars, designated smoking rooms in public lodging and noncommercial private homes.
Lawyers for the cigar manufacturers say the law provides no room for the Legislature to expand those exceptions to include the state's 27 cigar businesses, which together employ some 2,500 people who earn an estimated $90-million a year.
When legislators meet in March, they are expected to draft enabling legislation that will put the law into effect by July 1.
"We don't know what the Legislature is going to do, but this takes effect in July and there was a feeling that we needed to get to the courts and get an answer to our question of whether it's constitutional or not," said Ben Hill, a Tampa attorney who represents the nine cigar businesses that filed the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed in Tampa, states that the ban is unconstitutional because it would kill an industry that Congress has deemed legal and affects the industry's ability to ship products across state lines.
Owners of the cigar companies say it is unreasonable to ask them to take their testing outdoors.
"We make over 2-billion cigars a year at this facility," said Tom Ryan, vice president of sales and marketing for Swisher International Inc. of Jacksonville, a plaintiff and maker of the King Edward and Swisher Sweets cigars. "To walk outside and do that, how disruptive would that be?"
A spokesman for Attorney General Charlie Crist said Crist could not comment on the lawsuit because he hasn't seen it. Crist and Gov. Jeb Bush are among two of the named defendants.
Brenda Olsen, assistant executive director of the American Lung Association of Florida, said her organization's lawyers would look at the challenge.
"We certainly never intended to put any kind of commercial business out of business," Olsen said. "It's a public health measure and it's to protect people from exposure to second-hand smoke. I think that there's certainly possibilities for the Legislature to look at that particular situation and see if there's a way they can take care of it."
Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America in Washington, D.C., said the cigar industry tried to fight the measure. But the health organizations were better funded, he said. The Cigar Association is funding the lawsuit on behalf of the cigar companies.
"We want to stress this is not about banning smoking," Sharp said. "It's about economics and industry survival. We're trying to protect an industry whose heritage is at the the foundation of Florida's cultural and economic history."
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