Latin American Report
Cigar Smokers in a Quandry
By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, March 13 (IPS) - Imagining a Cuba without cigars is as difficult to believe as a Brazil with no coffee but cigar producers here are in a quandary over the future since the decision by President Fidel Castro to quit smoking.
The bearded visage of Castro contentedly puffing on a Havana had for years served as an advertisement for the national brands of cigars that emerged with the triumph of the revolution in 1959. Many here have been sceptical of Castro's decision to quit the habit, but already it has won him a medal from the World Health Organization (WHO). He also has denied taking a puff in private. "There would always be someone who would find out. I couldn't do it", Castro told a group of Spanish visitors recently after announcing that he had joined the ranks of the non-smokers.
But while Castro may have given up smoking Cohiba cigars, the brand of the revolutionary era, Cuba is counting on the continued support of cigar smokers worldwide to boost tobacco exports. The goal this year is not only to increase production of cigars to 200 million units - 40,000 more than in 1998 - but also to reach new markets, including China. Of the 160 million of cigars produced in 1998, about 126 million had been sold before December generating revenues of over 170 million dollars.
Cuba hopes to raise this year's production to 200 million cigars for a market in which Spain is still the main buyer, followed by France, Switzerland, Britain and the Far East. The highly-desirable United States market, meanwhile, is still closed because of US sanctions against Cuba, although a single Cohiba can bring as much as 50 dollars on the black market.
Cuban manufacturers have no doubt they could satisfy the demand in the United States for their product, estimated to be about 60 million units a year - if the embargo eventually is lifted. But in addition to the blockade - the main obstacle in all the country's economic activities - the anti-tobacco campaigns in most areas of the world also are providing additional obstacles to Havana's hopes of conquering the US market. At the end of February, U.S. public health officials began a push for the inclusion of warning labels on cigar boxes that the contents were harmful to health. This followed an alert from the American Cancer Institute last year that cigars could be as toxic as cigarettes and have 90 percent more carcinogens.
Still, despite the approval of more than 700 US laws against tobacco, Cuban manufacturers are hopeful the market will still be there. According to data provided to Havana during an International Cigar Festival, 15 million people in the United States consume about 400 million "vitolas" (cigar types) each year.
The state-run cigar monopoly , meanwhile , plans to launch in November, on the anniversary of the founding of the capital of Cuba, a new brand of cigars: "San Cristobal de La Habana". The brand will have two or three varieties of cigars, which will join the other 34 existing brands and more than 700 types of cigars.
The industry has 28 factories devoted to production for export, located in 13 of the country's 14 provinces. Among these are Cohiba (El Laguito), Partagas, La Corona. H. Upmann and Romeo y Julieta, all located in the capital. There are also four processing plants for the cedar boxes in which the product is presented, as well as contracts with the Litopleg company for cigar rings and the industry as a whole keeps 44,000 people employed. Cuba has more than 50,000 hectares of land devoted to tobacco cultivation, 75 percent of which are in private hands, families with roots in the sector, especially in the area of Vuelta Abajo in the province of Pinar del Rio. (END/IPS/pg/dg/if-he-ea/99)