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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

(continued from page 2)

Creating bad will with the consumer is one of the key issues with counterfeit cigars, according to most cigar producers. "It is not really a matter of money," says Cubatabaco's Padron. "It is a matter of prestige because people smoke these cigars and then they are disappointed with the quality. I saw a fellow in Spain recently, and he said to me, 'look at this poor Cohiba Lancero.' He was on the other side of the table, and I told him that that happened because he bought his Cohibas on the streets of Havana. He got what he deserved, but it didn't make things any better."

Adds Davidoff's Schneider: "In (lost) sales, that's not so important, but we lost time dealing with this matter. We also lost a lot of money in court and lawyer fees. But we also lost our nerves. It was extremely upsetting."

It certainly takes a lot of chutzpah to make and to sell bogus Cohibas, Davidoffs and other cigars. Periodically, small factories are set up in just about every major cigar-producing area in Latin America. A recent source for fake Montecristos was a small factory on the outskirts of Santiago in the Dominican Republic. The cigar manufacturer had been making Montecristos for some time despite the fact that the ownership of the brand remains in the hands of the U.S.'s Consolidated Cigar Co., Cubatabaco and Spain's Tabacalera. It has been difficult to stop them because of an oversight by the Dominican government that inadvertently approved the company to produce Montecristo. "The government has admitted that it has made a mistake and is taking action to stop them from producing Montecristo, but it all takes time," says José Seijas, vice president and general manager of Tabacalera de Garcia, the key cigar factory for Consolidated Cigar Corp. "It's all a little embarrassing for the government of the Dominican Republic."

Counterfeiting is not confined to offshore operations. Such hard-to-find cigars as La Gloria Cubana--produced by El Credito Cigar Co. in Miami, Florida, and owned by Ernesto Carillo--are allegedly available at La Gloria Cigar Co., also in Miami. Call here and a man identifying himself as "Ernesto" will tell you that Wavells and Charlemagnes (two highly coveted sizes made by El Credito) are readily available. To neophytes and even regular smokers of El Credito cigars, it's hard to know the fake cigars from the real thing, until they are smoked. "They're just awful," says one unwary buyer who purchased and smoked the bogus cigars.

A similar case recently occurred with a cigar producer in Honduras, the Honduras Cuban Cigar Co., which began selling bogus Cohibas earlier this year. According to Cubatabaco, the company was making cigars for a Miami-based man, who claimed to have documentation giving him the rights to the brand name. He had Cohiba's distinctive yellow, black and white packaging produced by a printer in Miami, and the boxes and bands were so good that they were impossible to discern from the originals made in Havana.

The bogus Cohibas, mostly in the Lancero and Corona Especial shapes, were packaged in Honduras and shipped to various countries including Panama, Spain and Colombia. About 30,000 cigars were shipped and another 30,000 were ready to be exported to Germany before they were stopped. General Cigar Co., the United States company with the rights for Cohiba in the American market, is currently pursuing a settlement with both parties.

"It was the best counterfeit I have seen," admits Adriano Martinez, a key member of the Cubatabaco staff, who added a few of the Miami/Honduras boxes to his growing collection of counterfeits. "I don't know how a consumer would have ever known."

Most counterfeiting of cigars is less in the open, however. Phony cigar production is widespread in Cuba, but it's hard to stop because

of the number of people making them. It's usually individuals making a few boxes a week in their homes from stolen tobacco, boxes and bands. "They come from the farmers. They get the tobacco and make them themselves," says Padron. "They also steal cigars and bands from the factory. Some people even print the bands themselves. We have caught printers doing it. It is amazing how quickly things can be done with computers."

One of the biggest sources for fake Cohibas in Europe is through returning tourists who pay $15 to $25 a box for them and resell them to friends, restaurants and cigar merchants for four to five times' the price. Each year, more and more foreigners visit Cuba on holiday. The number of tourists has increased in the past three years from about 300,000 to more than 1 million annually. The idea of making a few hundred dollars after spending a week or two in the sun is too good to pass up for many, and it's easy to find a few boxes of cheap cigars while on holiday in Cuba. Just walk down a street in a popular tourist area in any town, and you're bound to be offered a box or two for sale.

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