Cigar Makers Fight Indoor Smoking Ban
TAMPA - Florida cigar makers filed suit Tuesday seeking to overturn the constitutional amendment prohibiting smoking in indoor workplaces, declaring the future of the state's centuries-old cigar industry is at stake.
The impending legal battle pits an industry whose heritage shaped Tampa against a movement based on fears of secondhand smoke that was backed by enormous public support.
The outcome could have repercussions far beyond the cigar factories the industry says could become extinct. The amendment, approved by 71 percent of state voters in November, also snuffs out cigarettes and cigars in all indoor restaurants and bars, excepting only retail tobacco shops, stand-alone bars and designated hotel rooms.
While the potential impact on the food and beverage industry has received most of the attention in the wake of the vote, the Florida cigar makers are the first to challenge the constitutional amendment.
The nine plaintiffs who filed the federal lawsuit in Tampa include the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. and Oliva Tobacco Co. Inc., both run by world-renowned families with deep Tampa roots.
The plaintiffs say the issue is strictly economic, with the survival of an industry that generates millions of dollars at stake.
The wording of the amendment prohibits cigar smoking and the burning of tobacco in their factories, the plaintiffs say.
Cigar smoking is part of the everyday testing and manufacturing process, said Eric M. Newman, president of J.C. Newman Cigar Co. in Ybor City.
``We are not having a cigar smoking orgy here,'' Newman said. ``All we want to do is run a factory.''
Plaintiffs Fear Extinction
The company makes 40,000 to 50,000 cigars daily by machine at its plant at 2701 16th St., which employs about 100 people. It was founded in Cleveland in 1895 and moved to Tampa in 1953.
J.C. Newman also produces a line of premium cigars that are hand-made in the Dominican Republic, and has a distribution agreement with the A. Fuente cigar company. The lawsuit states that employees test Newman and Fuente premium cigars at the Tampa factory.
``We don't need Big Brother to tell private owners how to run their business,'' Newman said.
He said the company restricts smoking to special areas, in portions of its conference, executive and break rooms, with most of the testing taking place in offices.
Oliva Tobacco Co., based in the former Villazon factory at 3104 N. Armenia Ave., supplies tobacco to the the most prominent cigar makers in the industry.
The other plaintiffs are Altadis U.S.A., based in Fort Lauderdale; Swisher International of Jacksonville; and the Miami companies Caribe Imported Cigars, Central America Tobacco Corp./Torano Cigars, Puros Indios Cigars, ASP Enterprises and Cigar Masters/El Credito Cigar Co.
They said the amendment would put 27 Florida-based cigar firms with 2,500 employees and a combined annual payroll of $90 million out of business.
State Officials Defendants
Named as defendants in the lawsuit were Gov. Jeb Bush, Attorney General Charlie Crist, House speaker Johnnie Byrd Jr. and Senate President James E. King.
The lawsuit had not been served on the governor's office as of late Tuesday, and a spokeswoman said the governor had no comment.
An aide to Byrd said the lawmaker's policy was to decline comment on ongoing litigation.
Cigar industry officials said they were acting solely in the interest of their industry, not on behalf of restaurateurs or the cigarette industry.
``The cigar industry is not trying to make an end run,'' said attorney Benjamin H. Hill of Tampa-based Hill Ward & Henderson, representing the plaintiffs.
Before November's election, restaurants were covered by the state's Clean Indoor Air Act, which limited smoking in public places to designated areas.
The constitutional amendment passed by voters considers restaurants as workplaces.
Amendment Had Much Support
Groups sponsoring the amendment contended that restricting smoking to particular areas did not work, and cited the Environmental Protection Agency designation of secondhand smoke as carcinogenic.
``Clearly the people spoke out loud with their 71 percent vote,'' said Martin Larsen, chairman of Smokefree For Health, an umbrella agency working for groups including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association.
Larsen said he found it odd that the plaintiffs were taking a legal route against the amendment even before the Legislature decides on how to enforce the amendment. Lawmakers have a July 1 deadline to pass enforcement regulations.
``Our lawyers are looking at the lawsuit, and they will tell us what it [means], but it's inappropriate to comment on its details at this point,'' Larsen said.
Hill and others acknowledged that because the smoking initiative was a constitutional change rather than a law enacted by the Legislature - much like recent amendments calling for a statewide bullet train and class-size limitations - the challenge is anything but clear.
Last week, Diane Carr, Gov. Bush's secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, criticized the amendment.
``This is a classic example of the kind of thing that should not be in the Constitution,'' she said. ``Now that it is, we're faced with all the myriad problems that are going to cost the state a lot of money and be very, very horrendous in terms of execution.''