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Buyer Beware: Counterfeit Cigars

Not the real thing—counterfeits of the top Cuban cigar brands are flooding the world market.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

"Amigo. Hey, amigo," said the waiter who had just brought me an extremely cold Hatuey beer at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. "Do you want to buy some Cohibas? Only $25 a box. I have a friend who has some. What do you think?"

Cohibas at $1 a stick, I thought to myself. How can I lose? Cuba's most prestigious and highly sought-after cigars usually sell for at least $10 to $30 each, depending on the size.

I told the man that I would buy a box the next day. I waited in anticipation of enjoying my heavily discounted Cohibas. The next evening he arrived at my chair by the pool with a white, cardboard cigar box properly decorated with the Cohiba logo. It looked no different than what was currently being offered to tourists in most hotels and other authorized distribution points in Cuba. (At the time, the white, cardboard boxes were used only domestically for Cohiba while the more distinguished, varnished cedar boxes were kept exclusively for export and a few, key cigar shops in Havana.)

Before giving him the $25 in cash, I opened the box and looked at the cigars. They appeared slightly rough for the usually long and elegant-sized Lancero, but they carried the proper yellow, white and black Cohiba band, and they appeared to be the right size. The only difference I could see was that thecellophane was slightly shorter than normal and was not folded over at the end of each Lancero. But for $25, I thought, what would be the risk? How bad could they be?

I gave him the money and asked him to bring me another beer to celebrate my shrewd purchase. I decided to try one right away. I selected one of the 7 1/2 inch by 38 ring gauge cigars from the box. I pulled it out of its cellophane, cut the end and lit up. It was awful. Green. Harsh. And much too peaty. I used my beer to extinguish the fire in my mouth.

I was too embarrassed to tell any of my traveling companions what I had done. And I thought there was no use in trying to get my money back from the waiter; he needed the $25 more than I did. I threw the "Cohibas" in the trash in my hotel room.

This was not an isolated incident, and many cigar lovers have gone through the same disappointment. From a few boxes of cigars on the streets of Havana to large consignments in warehouses in the Middle East, the counterfeit cigar business is growing. Counterfeiters can't resist the temptation to copy some of the world's most sought-after luxury-cigar brands--including Cohiba, Montecristo and Davidoff. They can copy the bonafide product for next to nothing and then sell the bogus cigars for 10 to 20 times' the production cost--still a fraction of the market value for the real thing.

At the moment, counterfeiters have not focused their attention on well-known cigar brands from such countries as the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Jamaica. "There isn't enough margin in the prices to do it with domestic brands," says Leonard Gold, national products manager for Consolidated Cigar Corp., producers of the Dominican Republic's H. Upmann, Don Diego, Primo del Rey as well as Mexico's Te-Amo. "Counterfeiters just couldn't make enough profit on domestic (U.S.) cigars."

However, Cuban cigars--especially those clandestinely sold in the United States--are an entirely different matter. With the average Cuban cigar selling for about $8 apiece and some as high as $20, the margins are more than ample for making large profits with forgeries. Currently, Cohiba represents the majority of counterfeit cigars traded around the world due to the incredible demand and high prices. Other cigar producers might secretly relish the idea of having a similar problem, but most other premium-cigar brands just don't have Cohiba's consumer sex appeal. The decline in the production of Cohiba because of a series of small crops in Cuba's tobacco plantations has only exacerbated the situation. With ample crops and supplies, the Cubans may make as many as 4 million Cohibas a year, but production was less than half that in 1993.

"Counterfeiting is a steady problem that we have to deal with," says Francisco Padron (see interview, page 75, Spring '94), general director of Cubatabaco, the Havana-based marketing organization for Cuban cigars, and the man who put Cohiba in the humidors of the world's cognoscenti. "All sorts of people try to counterfeit Cohiba and other brands. It's difficult to control. How can you stop people who counterfeit French perfume or Swiss watches? Nobody can. All over the world they do this, and they can't stop it."

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