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No smoke: Americans still can't puff with impunity on Cuban cigars

12/19/2014 04:00 EST | Updated 02/17/2015 05:59 EST
WASHINGTON - At the cigar lounge two blocks from the White House, Cuban smokes aren't on the menu just yet.

That's because the historic policy announced this week by U.S. President Barack Obama has only a limited effect on America's unique tobacco taboo.

Certain travellers will be allowed to bring some home now. But commercial sales of Cuban cigars remain illegal. Should Obama want to buy one from a legal establishment, the closest one is in Canada, where cigar-smoking Canucks can puff with impunity on the communist country's crop.

The downtown D.C. lounge expects things will change here — just a little slowly.

"As far as a retail market, I would have to guess that we're easily 18 months to three years away," said Justin Russell of Shelly's Back Room.

"There's a lot of challenges they have to meet."

The potential U.S. penalties for importing Cuban cigars are painful: up to $1 million in fines for corporations, $250,000 for individuals and up to 10 years in prison. Foreign residents and visitors to the U.S., including Canadians, cannot bring in goods of Cuban origin under any circumstances.

The normal punishment, Russell said, is generally less severe.

"What they'll normally do is confiscate them and probably issue you a citation, and you'll be contacted by a U.S. attorney," Russell said. "I've had friends coming back from Canada, who've had Cuban cigars confiscated and they're given a notice by Customs and Border Protection."

Some things will change sooner.

As part of its re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. will expand the number of visitors it allows to travel to the island through a variety of cultural and professional programs.

These visitors will be allowed to bring back up to $100 in tobacco products — which probably buys about three or four high-quality Cuban cigars. The new policies should be in effect early in the new year.

"(It'll happen in) days or weeks, certainly not months," said Roberta Jacobson, a senior State Department official, telling a press briefing Thursday that U.S. Treasury officials were working on regulatory changes.

More profound changes would require a law in Congress — which could take a while because the chamber is notoriously deadlocked these days.

Until then, there will be restrictions on tourism and trade with Cuba. And the mystique will linger, like an impenetrable cloud of smoke, over Cuban cigars.

Russell says it's that mystery that explains the fascination with Cubans, as much as anything related to quality.

"I think that's part of the allure of the Cuban cigar in the U.S. right now — it's that forbidden fruit," he said.

"You know, when you're out and someone gives you a Cuban cigar you're like, 'Oh my gosh, that's so generous, and thank you very much.' It's like, ooh, the mystique of the Cuban cigar — you're part of that legend."

The legend goes way back.

It dates back to written records from Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the New World in 1492, which describe aboriginal people consuming tobacco in Cuba.

The story also figures in the Cuban revolution, when Castro's troops stormed tobacco fields and informed the owners they'd been nationalized.

As John F. Kennedy prepared to declare an embargo against Cuba in 1962, he ordered an aide to buy up all the H. Uppman Cuban cigars he could find. The aide is said to have come back with 1,200.

But do they merit their reputation?

The magazine Cigar Aficionado, considered a go-to source for this kind of thing, publishes a Top 25 list each year of best cigars — and lately Cuba has had only two or three on the list.

The magazine's writers have described the Cuban industry as having had a series of ups and downs, marked by missteps and attempts to catch up once again to innovative rivals in Central America and the Caribbean.

Last year, a Cuban Montecristo was No. 1 on the list. This year, Cubans are ranked No. 2 and No. 9.

The truth about Cuban cigars is that they vary, Russell said.

Some are great, like the top Montecristo, and others are anything but great: "I was up in Toronto last year, had a cigar and it unravelled," he said of one particularly bad brush with Cuban product.

"It came apart, it burned unevenly. It wasn't a very good smoke at all."

He predicted that people will try Cubans as access opens up. But the novelty will wear off, he said, and Shelly's patrons will go back to their regular puffing preferences.

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