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Even with Fidel Castro Dead, Cuban Cigars Won't Hit US Shelves for Years (If Ever)

Over the past couple of years, the U.S. Government has been cozying up to Cuba, in an attempt to "reset" a relationship that has been pretty chilly since the late 1950s. Yesterday, for the first time in decades, a regularly-scheduled commercial flight left the United States and landed in Havana. While we'll leave the geopolitical politics to others, the question we ask here is "what does this mean for Cuban cigars in the United States?" Great question, but one that's without a simple answer.

The trade embargo with Cuba instituted by President Kennedy in 1962 still stands. As you have likely heard, Kennedy actually sent his Press Secretary (and fellow cigar lover) Pierre Salinger all over Washington DC on the eve of the embargo to purchase as many H. Upmann cigars as he could find. We he learned Salinger had snagged 1,200 of the cigars the night before, Kennedy calmly signed the papers putting the trade embargo into effect. Even today, Cuban cigar manufacturers cannot import Cuban cigars to the U.S. market.

While there used to be a complete ban, and then a $100 limit on bringing any goods directly back from Cuba, President Obama recently lifted the personal import limit specifically for Cuban rum and cigars. SO, if you travel to Cuba (for educational purposes--still can't go as a tourist) and you remember to bring an extra suitcase or 3, you can load up on all of the Cuban cigars you want and legally bring them directly back into the United States. For personal consumption only.

But, for those of us not traveling to Cuba anytime soon, the question remains: when will you be able to purchase Cuban cigars at your local cigar shop? The answer may be "never," or "not for several years." It is entirely possible that the incoming Trump Administration will walk back the trade deals now in place between the US and the Cuban government. If that happens, the "unlimited personal import" opportunity may go away, and the embargo may remain. But, even if the incoming Trump Administration keeps trade deals with Cuba in place, or even eliminates the embargo completely, Cuban cigars are not immediately headed for store shelves.

The reason for this? FDA labeling and testing requirements. Under new rules adopted by the FDA in August, 2016, any cigar introduced to the US market after February 15, 2007 will have to go through an FDA application process. Cigars on US shelves as of August, 2016 can remain on shelves during the process, but "new" cigars introduced after August, 2016 (as all Cuban cigars would be) will have to be approved by the FDA before they can be sold in stores. Unfortunately, the application process is long and expensive--estimated to take between 1,700 and 5,000 hours per different type (not brand) of cigar, and cost between $1,400 and $3,600 per type of cigar. With these requirements in place, it could take years before even one--much less the full range of--Romeo y Julieta (or other top brand) cigar hits the US market.

Even if these cigars became available on the open market, they likely would be subject to trademark lawsuits for years, because their brand names are claimed by both US-based and Cuban-based companies (cigar companies in Cuba were nationalized in 1961, and their owners fled to the US to form new companies, keeping their old names). Sorting out these details will take additional time and significant resources.

All that said, there are plenty of places online that sell Cuban cigars of varying degrees of authenticity. No comment on the legality of that. But, don't expect to find these cigars locally anytime soon.

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