• Bloomberg


American cigar smokers anxiously flicked their lacquered lighters this morning when news broke that President Barack Obama would be easing the decades-old restrictions on Cuban travel and goods. Since 1962, Cuba’s legendary cigars have been banned from the shelves of American tobacconists and many travelers have sadly handed over their duty-free smokes to border agents.

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

Cuban cigars have not been legalized for sale in the US. That cannot change until Congress agrees to reverse the trade embargo.

What has changed is that now a “licensed traveler” (no word yet on exactly who qualifies here) can bring back up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, up to $100 of which can be cigars and rum for personal use. While prices vary greatly — not all Cuban cigars are created equal — the $100 allotment will generally cover no more than a dozen high-end cigars from makers such as Partagas and Cohiba. There are vintage and limited edition cigars for which a single stick will still be too pricey to make it into the US.

It will certainly be easier for cigars to make their way onto American shores now, but the embargo has been anything but a perfect barrier. Aaron Sigmond, author of Playboy: The Book of Cigars and founding editor of both The Cigar Report and Smoke Magazine, estimates that “10 to 30% (some say higher) of Cuban cigars already land in the U.S. . . . it’s safe to say that those who desire these things now already have a pipeline to procure them.”

But telling the real Cuban from the fake will not 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 is not all that sophisticated, Boone said. Someone buys from a traveling friend or a friend of a friend. Many times that is 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., Cigar Aficionado magazine reported in 2011.

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 is the rarity that breeds desire, he said.

The U.S. not only bans all Cuban tobacco imports; cigars made there cannot 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 will not 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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