The tobacco industry is facing opposition from all sides. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is regulating the cigar industry to such extreme lengths that many companies have had to downsize, or, particularly if they’re smaller, had to shutter their operations entirely. The public opinion of those who smoke tobacco is that we’re murdering not only ourselves but everyone around us with our secondhand smoke.
“Unfortunately, cigars have a big black letter on [them], and we get hooked in with Big Tobacco and cigarettes,” says Eric Newman, president of J.C. Newman Cigar Company. “That’s one of the things I’ve been trying to explain to the FDA—that not all tobacco is bad. We cater and market to adults; it’s a craft industry. We smoke cigars as a celebration because we like cigars—not because we’re addicted to [them].”
But despite this opposition, hope rises as we look to the future and the ways the cigar industry is giving back. This is not an industry of take, take, take. Many of the cigar families are just that: families. Second, third, and sometimes even fourth-generation family members continuing the legacies of their parents.
Visit just one factory in the Dominican Republic and you’ll see how much these tobacco manufacturers care for their employees. Many of the cigar companies will provide free healthcare, schooling, and extracurricular activities for their hundreds, sometimes thousands, of employees. These are not the sweatshops you see photos of in China. These are clean, air-conditioned, safe environments where there is always room for growth and upward mobility.
One of the best examples of the cigar industry giving back is that of the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation (CFCF), which was founded by Eric Newman of J.C. Newman Cigar Company, and Carlos Fuente Jr., of Arturo Fuente Cigars. The goal of CFCF, according to their website, is to “create meaningful change through healthcare, education and the development of eco-friendly business ventures providing self-sufficiency to the communities of the Dominican Republic.”
CFCF is situated in Bonao, Dominican Republic, which consists of five rural communities. This area suffers from extreme poverty, an inadequate educational system, and horrible water quality. It was in the year 2000 that longtime industry partners Newman and Fuente Jr. were riding through Bonao looking at tobacco fields when they noticed kids playing in the street in the mid-morning.
“I said, ‘Carlos, what are they doing? Why aren’t they in school?’” Newman says. “And Carlos replied, ‘There’s a shortage of classrooms here; this whole country is on double session. There are not enough classrooms for all the kids.’ These are areas that have been impoverished for centuries, and the only way to break that cycle—here or anywhere—is through education.”
It was around this time that the cigar industry was going through a boom unlike any it had experienced in the last few generations. Cigars were suddenly trendy. Newman said that the boom encouraged him to want to share this profit with the people who made the cigars and who grew the tobacco.
“We drove a little further, and we saw these girls carrying jugs of water on their heads,” Newman remembers. “You won’t believe it, but most of these houses don’t have clean water, or any water, period. They have to carry the water sometimes 2 miles from the river to the house, and most of the time it’s still not clean enough to drink. I said to Carlos, ‘That’s not right. Let’s give them clean drinking water, and let’s build a school.’”
Not long after in 2004, after some raising money and getting all the necessary permits, Newman and Fuente opened the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation School. Newman recalls walking around shortly after the school opened and seeing the afternoon bus pulling up.
“The kids get off the bus and run into the classrooms,” Newman says. “In the U.S., you get out of school and you run towards the bus. They were so excited to be there. It was then we knew we had something special.”
Over 480 children attend the school, where they are provided breakfast and lunch. Along with core classes such as reading, writing, math, social studies, etc., students are taught computer skills and foreign languages, and they are given the choice of various electives such as music, dance, karate, baseball, soccer, volleyball, and much more.
When my tour group and I arrived at the school, we were not only greeted by students speaking in their native Spanish but also in English and French. Some of the students put on a wonderful presentation showcasing their skills in dance, music, and karate.
The facilities also house a medical clinic complete with pediatricians, pharmacists, and dentists. CFCF even has a program in which doctors will go house to house throughout the villages, administering basic medical care. Since the school’s founding, more than 4,500 clean water filters have been provided to the community.
The school, which is partly powered by solar energy, is so impressive that Newman equates it to taking someone to Disney World for the first time.
“And when you come here you, don’t see the words ‘Fuente’ or ‘Newman’ anywhere,” says Newman. “It’s not a Newman project. It’s not a Fuente project. It’s a Cigar Family project.”
Since the school’s opening day on Sept. 6, 2004, it has had 10 graduating classes, and about 92 percent of the students who graduated from the school are now in college. The challenge after graduation, Newman says, is simply finding jobs.
“You get a degree, now what?” Newman asks. “Up until we came to Bonao, it was the dream of every Dominican to go either to Santo Domingo or New York City. There was no reason to come back. But now, we must have a dozen kids working at this school in some capacity: coaches, music and drama teachers.
Newman tells the story of one girl who graduated from the school and went to college to become a teacher.
“What could she have done?” Newman asks. “She could have written her own ticket. But what does she do? She’s teaching math at the Cigar Family school. I love the idea of going full circle and giving back.”
Newman says this concept of giving back is hard to grasp in many areas of the Dominican Republic. One such example involves a student named Ampara, who was featured on the cover of Cigar Family Charitable Foundation’s newsletter called “Fulfilling the Dream.” Newman and his wife took Ampara out to lunch to excitedly show her the newsletter, and as Ampara was flipping through it she noticed the giving envelope. She asked Newman and his wife what the envelope was for.
“We told her it’s so we can raise money for the Cigar Family Foundation,” Newman says. “And she asks, ‘Why?’ And my wife replied, ‘It’s so you can go to school.’ And Ampara just starts to cry. Nobody has ever tried to help these kids. It’s just so foreign to them, the concept of giving back and of people doing something for someone else without any hidden motive or agenda.”
One of the biggest benefits of giving to CFCF is that you’ll know exactly where your money is going. This is something Fuente and Newman wanted to make sure that if someone gives a dollar, the dollar goes right to the project. All of the overhead, administration, lawyers, accountants, and marketing expenses are all covered by the Fuente and Newman families.
Newman says that maintaining CFCF is truly a group effort within the industry. He recounts that at one point early on they had the opportunity to obtain some grants—but only if they would change the name of the foundation, because “cigar” is often considered to be a dirty word.
“We said we can’t do that for a bunch of reasons; we are who we are,” Newman says. “Fuente has been in the tobacco business for 108 years. We’ve been in the tobacco business for 124 years. More than that, though, our retailers believe in us as a cigar family, and a cigar family by nature is inclusive not exclusive. It’s anyone who smokes cigars, and anyone who believes in supporting kids is part of our cigar family. That’s who we are, and we won’t change that.”
And the support has been so overwhelming that Newman and Fuente Jr. are currently expanding and building a technical/nursing school. But best of all, CFCF has become a catalyst for opening people’s eyes to helping others in their own communities.
“There have been a few other companies in Honduras who have tried to replicate us, and we were thrilled,” Newman says. “No one has a lock on helping people. But Carlos and I are getting older, and it takes a new generation to continue this dream. Carlos has [his children], Lidiana, Liana, Sofia and Carlos. I have my son, Drew, and all of them are in the business. New people come with new ideas, new spirit, and new energy.”
“It’s not just about cigars,” says Liana Fuente, vice president of brand development at Arturo Fuente Cigars. “It’s actually cliché. My dad says that it’s not about the cigars; it’s about the people. But it truly is. Because if it wasn’t for cigars, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to help so many people, so it’s a true blessing. Children that would never have had an opportunity, never would’ve known how to read or write, are now becoming doctors. I mean, how insane is that?”
“If you ever have a bad day,” Newman continues, “just go around those schools. You see those smiles, and it instantly cures your bad day. This school was built in one of the poorest areas in the country, but the school is just a building; it’s the smiles that are special. I’m so proud of the kids. I’m so proud of the school. I’m so proud of our retailers, And I’m so proud of our Cigar family. We can’t do it alone.”
For more information about CFCF and to donate, visit cf-cf.org.
Extra photos, and student quotes, courtesy of CFCF.
Spotlight on Nelson Suarez Collado
Nelson Suarez Collado wanted to be a doctor ever since he was a little kid. He would tell his mother he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up, and she would tell him to get that silly notion out of his head.
“Our people are lucky to get jobs at all,” she would tell Collado.
But Collado’s dream never died. He started attending Cigar Family school and did very well on his tests and all the while, his dream persisted. He even represented the school to the United Nations; chosen as one of 15,000 applicants from the Dominican.
“It’s working hard and studying very hard,” Collado says. “Every day I studied very hard. I knew that this was my dream. If I could be good at school, I would have opportunities to go to medical school.”
He graduated from high school and is now in his fifth year of medical school on his way to becoming a neurosurgeon.
“There are only four neurosurgeons in the whole country,” Newman says. “Nelson says that not only does he want to stay in his own country, but he wants to stay in Bonao. A neurosurgeon in Bonao? That’s amazing. He’s come full circle and now he wants to give back to his people. He’s that special of a kid.”
“I am very grateful to God and all the founders of Cigar Family,” Collado says. “Your effort is not in vain.”
For more, check out our interview with the Fuente siblings.