Despite changes, Cuban cigars still rare
First Posted: 1/5/2015
President Barack Obama’s recent decision to soften sanctions against Cuba is creating renewed interest locally in Cuban cigars, according to area cigar shop owners.
“I am asked by customers every day about when I will be getting Cuban cigars in,” said Jonathan Walsh, co-owner of El Humidor in Plains Township.
On Dec. 17, Obama made history with an announcement about changes to the 50-year-old United States trade embargo against Cuba and the re-establishing of diplomatic relations with the island country.
The multi-faceted new policy will allow a slight increase in travel to Cuba. Those returning from the island will be allowed to bring back $100 worth of Cuban tobacco products or alcohol for private consumption.
“A hundred dollars worth of Cuban cigars will not affect the cigar industry,” Walsh said. “That is only about four to five cigars. A box of authentic Cuban cigars can range from $300 to $500.”
So the dreams of consumers being able to purchase a legal, imported box of hand-rolled Cubans from the local shop is no more tangible than the swirling smoke of a cigar for now.
The United States enacted a trade embargo against Cuba in 1962. President Obama does not possess the power needed to end the trade freeze. That would require an act of Congress.
Dino Riviello, co-owner of City Tobacco in Edwardsville, agrees with Walsh that Obama’s announcement is a step in the right direction, but added he is not expecting the coveted cigars to come to the United States anytime soon.
If the trade embargo were to be lifted, the flow of Cuban cigars into the United States would take another year or two, Riviello said.
The influx could be delayed by cigar manufacturers who were exiled from Cuba in the 1950s and 60s by Fidel Castro’s regime. Many currently produce cigars in other countries with the same brand names as the cigars made in Cuba.
That could create legal issues if the freeze on Cuban trade is removed, Walsh said.
“There could be a battle to see who will make the product,” Walsh said.
Or everything could be worked out behind the scenes making the transition to U.S. cigar markets seamless, he said.
“The cigar industry is similar to any other big industry where big moves are kept quiet,” Walsh said.
Tapping into the U.S. cigar market seems to be a viable move for Cuban manufacturers, but local consumers and cigar shop owners wonder if there would be enough of high quality, handmade cigars to meet the demand.
According to a 2008 study by the Tobacco Journal International, the U.S. is the top world consumer of cigars, consuming 65 percent of the premium cigars smoked worldwide. Western Europe consumes 25 percent.
“The United States is the biggest consumer of cigars,” Riviello said.
Riviello said locally the interest in cigars has grown since the opening of City Tobacco 10 years ago.
“We have grown every year,” Riviello said.
The popularity of Cuban cigars could stem from the fact they are perceived as being the “forbidden fruit,” Walsh said.
“It is not any different than the underage drinking problem we have in this county,” Walsh said. “It is prohibited, so people want it.”
Cigar smoker Bill Kane of Plains Township agrees, stating he has never had the opportunity to smoke a Cuban but heard from others that they are better than anything available in the U.S.
“The rarity of the cigar increases its draw,” he said.
Walsh, who noted the Cuban trade embargo has been an area of personal interest, said President John F. Kennedy sent one of his advisers to Cuba to get some cigars before the legislation was signed.
If the embargo is lifted, Riviello projects there will be a big push for Cuban cigars for the first six months to a year.
“I would anticipate they (Cuban brands) would sell out fast,” Riviello said.
The push to meet a larger demand on the Cuban cigar industry could result in quality issues, both Walsh and Riviello said.
“In one box of cigars there can be an inconsistency in taste,” Walsh said.
Besides the age-old problem of supply and demand, opening the doors to importing Cuban cigars could also make a situation where counterfeit Cuban cigars blossom.
Walsh advises cigar smokers to be careful.