Havana Corner: No Smoking In Cuba?

This may be the last straw, or cigar. What was once thought of as a giant natural humidor for cigars is on the way to becoming smoke-free -- at least that's what international press reports stated yesterday. Yes, Cuba, the holy grail of cigar smoking, is putting in place smoke-free regulations in public places such as offices, restaurants, bars and hotels. The regulations go into effect on February 7.

It all seems so hard to believe. This is like banning wine drinking in France or Italy, or outlawing beer drinking in Germany. It could even be like (dare I say it) Americans no longer being allowed to eat fast food. Whatever the analogy, this is bad news indeed.

Sources in Cuba tell me that they don't expect the new regulations to change much. But then again, not many Cubans frequent hotels, restaurants and other public areas frequented by foreigners. Even fewer Cubans can afford a great cigar. And when the Cuban government creates laws, it is serious about enforcing them.

Photo by James Suckling
The Associated Press used the following to buttress a story on the new regulations:

"We historically have been producers of tobacco and we cannot renounce that," Fidel Castro joked to a group of students in 2003. "When we give a box of cigars to a friend, we say: 'You can smoke them, or you can give them to a friend who smokes,'" Castro said then. "But the best thing to do is give them to your enemy."

I don't believe that Castro said this. I remember spending five hours with the president just 10 years ago in an interview for Cigar Aficionado, and Castro never seemed anti-cigars. In fact, there was nothing he liked better than talking about the production and pleasure of a great smoke. And premium cigars bring more than $250 million in revenues each year to his country.

This said, he is concerned with the health of Cubans, and the islanders smoke like chimneys. This is why Castro himself gave up smoking cigars almost two decades ago as a sign to his people that they should cut back their smoking. Whether these new regulations will actually curb Cubans' appetites for cigarettes remains to be seen, but they will certainly take away some of the pleasure of visting the island for the serious cigar smoker. I can't think of not having a great cigar with my Daiquiri at the El Floridita or after a meal in Havana's best restaurant, La Guarida. How sad it would be not smoking during a visit to a cigar factory and a buying trip to a cigar shop.

And what about this year's cigar festival beginning on February 21? Are we all going to be standing outside smoking on the curb during the seminars? Is the gala dinner going to be smoke-free? There won't be much to celebrate then.

According to sources at Habanos S.A., the organizers of the event and international distributors for Cuban cigars, the show will go on as before. "You will be able to smoke wherever you want."

Let's hope they're right because I will be in Cuba to enjoy a great cigar -- along with another thousand or so individuals.

# # #

Previous Havana Corner.