Cuban cigars still off-limits, but for how much longer?

Posted at 8:46 AM, Jan 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-12 17:59:37-05

As the long-standing prohibition on Cuban stogies begins to fade, aficionados are clamoring for a puff of the long-forbidden cigars thought by many to be the best in the world.

Since the day President Barack Obama announced renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba, smokers have been inundating weary tobacconists like Brandon Berthelsen of West Coast Cigars in San Jose with questions about when they can finally get their fixes — legally.

His response? Close, but no cigar.

As the 27-year-old explains to his customers, the new deal between the U.S. and Cuba, announced in December, means that Americans who travel to the island nation will now be able to bring back and enjoy $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco (read: rum and cigars) for personal use. Local cigar shops still can’t peddle Cubans unless Congress lifts an embargo that’s been in place since 1962, when President John F. Kennedy restricted almost all trade (though not before famously directing an aide to stockpile as many stogies as possible). But try telling that to the connoisseurs who are streaming into West Coast Cigars bent on leaving with a fistful of Cohibas.

“It’s a misunderstanding that keeps getting back to us,” Berthelsen says. “It’s kind of a headache.”

Up until now, cigar aficionados in the U.S. have nabbed Cuban smokes by bringing them back from Mexico and other countries where they are legal, or taking their chances with an online retailer, said Frank Rizzo, a 51-year-old who works at The Piedmont Tobacconist.

Legal or not, Cuban cigars are in demand and economists who expect the embargo to fall soon also expect to see a red-hot market for Cuban cigars in the U.S.

Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego, estimates that Cuba stands to do $100 million to $200 million in sales on American soil when trade resumes, capturing a significant share of the U.S. cigar market, particularly at the premium price point. Although many question whether Cubans are still the best on the market, they often command a higher price because they stir up a certain nostalgia, reminiscent of Camelot and the Kennedy presidency.

But in Rizzo’s mind, shelling out top dollar for a Cuban cigar is no more rational than buying a piece of celebrity memorabilia.

“Other than wanting to own Marilyn Monroe’s dress, why would you want an old dress?” he asked. “It ain’t a great dress.”

Stephen Haber, a senior fellow at Stanford University and the Hoover Institution, predicts that the availability of Cubans will push down prices for smokes from neighboring countries like the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua and spark a short-lived boom in cigar smoking.

“Everyone will want to smoke a Cuban cigar, and that will last for as long as fads last,” he says.

Cuba also exports commodities such as nickel and sugar, and its rum is a perennial favorite in liquor cabinets. Susan Kaufman Purcell, who directs the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, notes that Cuba is home to a blossoming generation of musicians and artists, whose work might catch on in the U.S.

But nothing is likely to match the demand for Cuban cigars, which have a potent brand that marketing rarely buys — and appears to have only intensified through the decades of prohibition.

“Cuban cigars are associated with the good life: sun, surf and sex,” Feinberg says.