Here Come the Real Cuban Cigars That No One Will Want Now

Dreaming of carrying armloads of cigars out of Cuba now that the U.S. is thawing relations? Not so fast.

At least initially, American visitors who treasure the scarce luxury smoke won’t be able to bring back home more than $100 of Cubans for personal use. Not everyone will be allowed to travel to the Caribbean island either. Plain old tourism is still banned.

President Barack Obama intends to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba, open an embassy in Havana and loosen travel and trade restrictions. It’s a big deal. Even the ubiquitous Coke, peddled in remote areas of the globe, can’t sell its drinks in Cuba (or in North Korea).

Telling the real Cuban from the fake won’t be easy. Counterfeit versions are everywhere.

“Most people are not getting what they think are Cuban cigars,” said Roland Boone, tobacconist for the Buckhead Cigar Club in Atlanta. “Many are made in Mexico, with a facsimile of a band that appears like a Cuban band.”

Prices are all over the map. The black market isn’t all that sophisticated, Boone said. Someone buys from a traveling friend or a friend of a friend. Many times that’s for no more than the seller’s cost, anywhere from $15 to $40 a stick.

Other Cuban cigars enter the country by way of Canada and Switzerland. A real box of Cohiba Behikes, usually containing 10 cigars, can go for as high as $1,000 in the U.S., according to a 2011 story by Cigar Aficionado magazine.

Rarity Breeds Desire

The love affair with Cuban cigars is more hype than substance, Boone said. He should know. The 48-year-old has smoked cigars since he was 15 and has worked as a tobacconist for 19 years. It’s the rarity that breeds desire, he said.

Right now, the U.S. bans all Cuban tobacco imports. Cigars made in Cuba can’t be brought in by way of other countries either, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Scofflaws who are caught face a possible $250,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison. Corporations face fines of as high as $1 million.

Cuban cigars purchased in other countries still won’t be permitted into the U.S. when the regulations are revised in the coming weeks, the Treasury Department said in an e-mailed statement.

The $100 limit in the new Cuban policies gives a reprieve to black-market opportunists. Eventually they will have to hunt for new business models as prices inevitably fall.

By then, aficionados in Wall Street may have moved on. Imagine buying the same stogie that Joe from Minnesota is puffing while watching the Vikings on a Sunday. Anyone have any North Koreans?

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