Posted May 1, 2000, 3:30 p.m. e.s.t.
Max Gutmann has had just about all he can take with counterfeit cigars. The exclusive importer for Cuban cigars in Mexico has tried just about every way -- both official and unofficial -- to curb the flood of fake Habanos coming into his country, but to little avail.
Over the last few years, Gutmann estimates that between 2 million to 3 million bogus smokes a year have been coming into his market, and the majority usually find their way into the United States. The counterfeit hot spots are Cancún, Cabo San Lucas and Tijuana. All these cities are favorites with Americans, and just about every tourist shop offers a selection of "Habanos."
"It's hard to find real cigars in these towns," admits Gutmann, 52, who imports about 3 million cigars into Mexico each year. "The fakes are just everywhere. The only place smokers can be sure to find the real thing is in La Casa del Habano stores."
A few months ago, police in Mexico City arrested a Russian with thousands of boxes of fake Cuban cigars, most of them bearing the markings of Cohiba. The fake Cohibas sold around the world could outnumber the annual production of genuine Cohibas, according to some tobacco officials in Cuba. Last year, about 14 million real Cohiba cigars were exported from the island. It's hard to know how many fake Cohibas are made each year in Cuba, but cigar hustlers on the street are always pushing the brand.
The most popular sizes being counterfeited are the Churchill-sized Esplendidos, measuring 7 inches long by 47 ring gauge, and the elegant, long Lanceros, 7 inches by 38.
"Another favorite of the counterfeiters is something they call Esplendidos Crystal, which isn't even made in Cuba," said Gutmann. "They are a glass-topped box of cigars which resemble Esplendidos."
Mexican police recently seized a large parcel of fake Cohiba torpedos, the fat pyramid-shaped cigars made popular by the Montecristo brand with its classic No. 2 size. The real Cohiba Piramides were made last year to celebrate the millennium. They were produced in limited quantities and packaged in porcelain jars with 25 cigars. The fakes that were seized came in crude wooden boxes and were the wrong size.
"Nothing ceases to amaze me at this stage," said Gutmann. "You would think that people would realize that these cigars have nothing to do with the real thing."
But maybe Americans visiting Mexico don't want the real thing. If they truly did, they wouldn't buy fakes, which are usually half the price or even less than the "Cohiba autentico." I'm convinced that most of them know that they are not buying the real things. However, this is an argument you have all read before from me, so I don't need to go into it again.
In a twist, some counterfeits in Havana are being sold straight from the cigar factory. In February, a friend was visiting the Partagas factory, and when he left the cigar-rolling gallery a couple of men offered him boxes of Lusitanias for $40 each.
Being the dummy he is, he gave them $80 for two boxes and rushed back to show his friends what a score he had made. I was suspicious the moment I laid my eyes on them. The boxes were real, but the cigars looked rough and the bands were wrong. We lit them up and they smoked OK (if a bit tight), but they did not have the richness or spice character of real Lusies.
I took one apart and I found that the cigar was filled with mostly short pieces of tobacco -- definitely not the real thing. I guess they were using floor sweepings! Anyway, my buddy was not a happy man. But I still like to tease him about his "big score."
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