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6 Things You Should Know About Cuban Cigars

American actor Groucho Marx, with his trademark mustache, glasses and cigar. We can't be sure that this cigar was Cuban.
John Kobal Foundation
Getty Images
American actor Groucho Marx, with his trademark mustache, glasses and cigar. We can't be sure that this cigar was Cuban.

Cuban cigars are wrapped in mystique. Soon travelers will be able to bring back $100 worth of the famed cigars. Here are some facts you should know.

1. Cuban cigars are expensive, even in Cuba.

As NPR's Tom Gjelten tweeted, the new permission to bring back $100 worth of tobacco (or alcohol) allows you at the most four good cigars. Tom says he hasn't been back to Cuba for six years, but the last time he was there, a single Cohiba or Uppman "set you back at least $25."

2. Cuban cigar companies have readers.

Cuba expert Ada Ferrer says cigar factories were known for having "lectores," or readers, who would read aloud as the workers rolled the cigars.

She's curious to know if the factories still have these readers, and she is especially curious to know what exactly they read aloud.

Havana-based blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo tells us today that, yes, they still have readers.

"They read the official press, yes, so boring," he says, "but then also some books of popular fiction. And most of the time the workers just listen to Cuban radio stations, mainly stories told through 'radio-novelas.' "

3. Cuban cigars may not be the best anymore.

At least according to Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami, who says:

"Cuba no longer makes the best cigars. Within Latin America, cigar smokers surveyed say that cigars made in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua are much better. It's not so much that the quality of Cuban cigars has deteriorated; it's more that cigar making in these three countries and elsewhere in the world has significantly improved."

4. Fidel Castro's favorite Cuban cigars were Cohibas, but he quit smoking decades ago.

In 1997, The New York Times reported:

"In fact, Cohibas were initially produced seven years after the 1959 Cuban revolution brought Mr. Castro to power. According to a history published by the company early this year, a cigarmaker-turned-soldier began rolling cigars for a friend who was one of Mr. Castro's bodyguards. The bodyguard soon began sharing the cigars with his boss, who loved their flavor and asked for more.

"At first, Mr. Castro reserved them for his own use and that of close associates, but eventually he began handing out Cohibas as gifts to heads of state and other foreign visitors, giving the brand international renown."

5. Groucho Marx's Cuban cigar was "generally unlit" when he was acting.

Groucho Marx was often seen with a Cuban cigar in his mouth when acting, but his son Arthur Marx wrote in Cigar Aficionado that the cigar was "generally unlit."

"He just used the unlit cigar as a prop, something to stick in his mouth, or to keep his hands busy when he wasn't talking," he wrote. "He did this for two reasons: one, he didn't want to smoke all day when he was shooting a film, and two, it would have been too difficult for the director to match the length the cigar had burned down between shots when it was time for another take. But if Groucho kept his cigar unlit, it was always the same length."

6. You can identify a fake Cuban cigar by the packaging.

Cigar Aficionado says pay close attention:

"The bottom of a Cuban cigar box tells a more complete story. There you'll see the words Habanos S.A., Hecho En Cuba, and (if the cigar is handmade, as Cuba's best are) Totalmente a Mano. Below that will be a code for the factory in which the cigars were made, and a date stamp showing when the cigars were put in the box. Counterfeits are often missing some of these details. We've seen typos, bogus fonts, missing stamps, and various other discrepancies. All the markings should be on a real smoke—be cautious of any missing (or misspelled markings)."

We'll leave you with a sobering fact: Most new cigar users in the U.S. are teens and young adults. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2012, "about 17 percent of male and 8 percent of female high school students had smoked a cigar within the last month, compared to the average of 5 percent from all ages. In all, about 13.4 million people age 12 and older smoke cigars."

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