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Cigar Diary: Fighting Counterfeits

Habanos S.A., Cuba's global cigar distribution company, struggles to keep fake cigars off the market, both in Cuba and around the world
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Models, May/June 03

(continued from page 1)

Whatever the reason, it stinks, just like most of the tobacco used in the fake cigars. How do the clandestine factories get the tobacco? Where do the bands and boxes come from? The unanswered questions are numerous.

Officials at Habanos are trying to do something. But they must feel like children building sand castles in the rising tide. They argue that most counterfeits on the world market come from outside Cuba, especially Panama, the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Name any Central American country, the officials say, and it could be a source for bogus smokes. They also believe that much of the packaging used for fake cigars, from bands to boxes, is made outside Cuba. But I believe most of the fakes are made inside Cuba.

Besides working more closely with Cuban customs, Habanos has been initiating changes in the export rules for cigars, which should curtail some of the business in fake smokes. When the new rules come into effect later this year, visitors will not be able to leave the island with a box of cigars unless they have an official receipt. Before the changes, people were able to exit the country with up to two boxes of 25 cigars without a receipt. The new rules should reduce the number of fake cigars leaving the island.

Habanos also plans to introduce a see-through label that will be placed on every official cigar box sold on the island. This should reduce the trade in fakes and curtail the sales of real cigars first bought on the island and later sold in other markets outside the normal, licensed Habanos dealers. But these so-called gray-market cigars are an entirely different subject, one I plan to address in a future column.

Of course, many of these fake cigars are not all that bad to smoke. During a trip in early August, I bought a box of Cohiba Siglo IIs for $20 from the manager of the house that I was renting in Havana. It was obviously bogus. The box itself was about five years old, the color of the bands was off, and the cigars were mushy and inconsistent in length. But the flavor of the tobacco was not too bad. I even pulled a gag on an aficionado friend from Italy by giving him a "five-year-old Siglo II." Maybe he was being polite, but he
didn't complain until I told him that it was a fake cigar after he was half done smoking it.

Some may say that fake cigars don't hurt anyone. But they do. The quality is not the same as official cigars, and even if they are well made, the cigars are not the same blend as the real items. This denigrates the image of Cuban cigars. The same is true with fake Padróns, Fuentes or any other cigars.

I can't help but think of all the Americans who smoke fake Cuban cigars and go away with a bad impression of Cuban cigars, as well as cigars in general. I have always thought that the annual underground market of Cuban cigars in the United States is somewhere around eight million sticks, but the majority sold in America today are probably fake. That doesn't do anything but hurt the image of cigars.

A lot of these bogus smokes in the United States probably come via Mexico. The market is absolutely overflowing with falsificados. Max Gutmann, one of the owners of the official Mexican agency for Cuban cigars, calls his market a "nightmare" for fakes. "They are everywhere and it is almost impossible to stop," Gutmann says.

It's the same situation in the Caribbean. During the Habanos festival, I met Rajkumar Sablani, the owner of Cigar World shops in Jamaica. He is one of the key merchants of Cuban cigars on the island, with a large clientele of Americans, particularly from cruise ships. He said that 95 percent of the cigars in Jamaica are fake. "It's a huge problem and most of the cigars come from Cuba," he said.

Some smokers, of course, don't care. A large number don't know the difference between a real and fake cigar anyway. Or they knowingly buy fake cigars because they don't want to pay the price for the real thing. They are the same people who buy knock-off Rolexes for $50, or Gucci bags from sidewalk vendors for $20. But it's difficult to do anything about them. Even education doesn't seem to work.

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