Buyer Beware: Counterfeit Cigars
Not the real thing—counterfeits of the top Cuban cigar brands are flooding the world market.
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In addition, Delgado says that some leaf apparently is obtained directly from farmers in the Vuelta Abajo and other tobacco-growing regions, and rollers then manufacture the cigars at home. "Now that we are allowed to have dollars, it is much more difficult to control cigars leaving the factory," Delgado adds. "Considering the difficulty of living in Havana at this time, it is a very small problem."
Fake boxes of Cohiba have even been turning up in the United States, where Cuban cigars for the most part are illegal. They are not, however, the contraband of returning tourists. Cuban refugees frequently carry boxes of cigars with them on flights to the States from Cuba in hopes of exchanging them for dollars on their arrival. "I get offered counterfeit Cohibas all the time," admits Manuel Hernandez, the owner of King's Treasure Tobacco in Miami. "Cubans come in and ask me how much a box of Cohiba Lanceros are worth, and I tell them that they are not officially available in the United States and that I can't buy them, but elsewhere they sell for so much. Sometimes you can tell that they are not real Cohibas."
"We are often offered them," says Oscar Boruchin, owner of Mike's Cigars, also in Miami. "As a matter fact, it's getting difficult to tell which cigars are real and which are counterfeit. The forgers are so good that it's hard to tell. It is unbelievable."
Boruchin never buys Cuban cigars, because it's illegal, but some of his customers purchase Cuban cigars from private sources. "Lots of my customers bring them to me and ask me to look and see if they are real," he says. "I think that 90 percent of the Cuban cigars (illegally) sold in the Miami area are counterfeit."
The flow of counterfeit Cuban cigars into the United States has increased with more Cubans visiting the States, after a slight change in the visa laws in Cuba. Cigars are viewed as being as good as cash by Cubans on U.S. stopovers. "Anything can happen when you change the rules," adds Padron. "Anything can happen."
So what can consumers do to be sure they are not buying fakes? The most obvious choice is to buy cigars from reputable merchants and for realistic prices. Anyone should be leery of cigars sold under the table or on the street and for ridiculously low prices. Also, take a close look at the packaging. If it doesn't look right, don't buy them. For instance, all bonafide Cohibas now come in varnished wooden boxes in lots of 25 or 50 as well as small paper holders of five. In addition, they should have the green-and-white certification label from the Cuban government, a deeply burnished stamp of "Cohiba," "Hecho en Cuba," "Cubatabaco," and "Totalmente a mano," as well as the factory code on the bottom of the box. Most Cohibas also have "EL" printed in ink on the bottom of the box, which denotes the El Laguito factory, although Robustos and Esplendidos may have other markings such as "FPG" for the Partagas factory. Cubatabaco also has plans this year to introduce a new sticker on the corners of all Cuban cigar boxes, with "Habanos" on it. Don't be shy about checking for the appropriate markings, even in a retail shop.
Yet, even with such measures to curb the growth in counterfeit cigars, consumers continue to be duped. "I can't tell you how many times I've seen counterfeit cigars," says Max Gutmann, the agent for Cuban cigars in Mexico and the owner of the Casa del Habano cigar shop in Mexico City. "It's always a question of getting the cigars for a cheaper price."
The day after I paid $25 for a box of counterfeit Cohiba Lanceros in Havana, the same waiter at the Hotel Nacional asked me whether I wanted another box. I told him that I had all the Cohibas that I needed for the moment. Later, I visited the Partagas Factory and bought a box at full price.