June 25, 2010
SMOKING bans and the recession are hitting Cuba's cigar industry,
signalling a hostile era for a product whose mystique once captivated
the likes of Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro.
The latest harvest of 22.4 million leaves was 14 per cent down on last
year, according to figures published this week, continuing a decline.
The number of cigars produced for export plunged from 217 million in
2006 to just 73 million last year.
''There was a reduction in planting due to limitations in resources
caused by the economic crisis,'' reported Guerrillero, a Communist Party
newspaper in the tobacco-growing western province of Pinar del Rio. The
amount of land devoted to tobacco fell 30 per cent last year.
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A drop in the number of airline passengers has hit duty free sales,
which comprises a quarter of the market. Anti-smoking laws have also cut
sales. Spain, the top export market, banned smoking in offices, shops,
schools, hospitals and on public transport in January. Smoking-related
illnesses kill about 50,000 Spaniards each year.
Habanos SA, a joint venture between Cuba and the British company
Imperial Tobacco Group, registered an 8 per cent fall in overseas sales
last year, said Simon Evans, an Imperial Tobacco spokesman.
''This was largely due to the impact of the global recession on
consumers,'' he said.
''There has been an impact following the introduction of smoking bans,
but this tends to be an initial dip in consumption which ameliorates
Cuban premium bands such as Montecristo, Cohiba and Partagas dominate
world market share with 70 per cent of sales. In the US, which has
banned nearly all trade with Cuba since 1962, Cuban cigars find a way in.
Pinar del Rio's humidity and slightly sandy soil proves an ideal
environment for the kinds of tobacco used in Cuban cigars. Leaves are
fermented at least twice and aged for months, even years. Two types of
leaves used in Cohibas, a flagship brand founded in 1966 at Dr Castro's
behest, are fermented a third time.
Connoisseurs say Nicaraguan and Honduran cigars, which emulate Cuban
hand-rolling techniques, can be equally smooth, but lack the romanticism
of those from Cuba.
Churchill, a fan of Romeo y Julieta, had a long, fat variety named after
him in 1947. Kennedy was so partial to Petit H Upmanns that he sent his
press secretary to get 1200 of them before imposing an embargo.
Dr Castro, who famously survived a CIA assassination plot involving an
exploding cigar, liked to be photographed with a cigar clamped between
his teeth, but he quit in 1985 for his health.