In my travels around the world, I have purchased many boxes of genuine Cuban cigars and encountered my fair share of fakes. I learned very early that fake cigars, although appearing authentic, are inevitably a disappointment, due to poor quality tobacco and inferior construction.
When visiting Havana, I am constantly badgered by young men on the street promising me "Buen tabaco, cheap, cheap." Many times, out of curiosity and the hope of scoring a deal, I have followed these fellows to the typical sweltering, small room in a rundown tenement. Upon our arrival, my escort would leave for a moment and then return with two or three other men and several boxes of difficult-to-find, large-size cigars. I would take a quick look and decline by saying the cigars were "falsos" (fake) and not worth five dollars. The young man and several vocal supporters would swear most sincerely that the cigars were indeed very real, stolen from the cigar factory by their dear Aunt Carmen, who works there. In truth, the boxes were stolen, but the cigars were made of inferior leaf found somewhere on the black market and produced by shoddy rollers working out of private homes.
The fake-cigar scenario is more common than ever these days, with so many new smokers looking for Cuban cigars. Add to this the increasing sophistication of counterfeiters, who have begun manufacturing boxes that look very real. The newest fad on the streets of America are Cuban cigars called "second quality." I can assure anyone that there is no such thing as a factory second from Cuba. If the cigar is flawed, it doesn't leave the country. Any sub-par cigar rolled by students or found to contain defects is distributed within the country.
Before attempting to spot fraud cigars, it helps if you understand how Cuban cigars are produced and distributed. All Cuban cigars are called Habanos, and are controlled by a government corporation of the same name. Cigars are collected each day from the various factories and sent to the Habanos warehouse to await distribution. Located throughout the world are authorized Habanos dealers who get a large portion of these cigars, although the quantities shipped represent only a small proportion of what the dealers desire. A much smaller portion of the factory output is divided amongst the 20 or so domestic cigar stores, almost all of which are located in Havana.
Every week or two, the Havana stores receive an allotment of cigars, mostly small cigars but also a few of the large models (robustos, churchills, torpedoes, double coronas) that everybody is looking for. You cannot hop a plane to Havana on a whim and buy any cigar you want. Large-size cigars are very difficult to find. Relatively few are produced, and only a fraction are sold in Cuba. Spread these precious few around to all the domestic and international dealers vying for them, and you can understand why few storebought Cuban cigars ever reach America.
While it is possible to buy Cuban cigars in countries such as Mexico and Canada and then resell them in America, there is minimal profit in buying a box in Mexico for, say, $325, and reselling it for $400. Tobacco taxes usually nullify this third-country concept in every country but one: Spain. Factor into the equation the risk of losing cigars to customs, and it becomes clear that reselling cigars bought abroad doesn't make much business sense. Smugglers are interested only in making money, and their preferred method is to buy a box of counterfeit cigars for $30 in Havana and sell it for $400 in the States. Even if they wanted to buy legitimate Habanos they couldn't, since there aren't enough available. Store prices in Cuba have risen 40%, in the last year, forcing even more smugglers to the dark side in an attempt to maintain large profit margins.
Thus, the counterfeit cigar business is booming. Hundreds of street hustlers in Havana will offer to sell cigars to anyone who doesn't look Cuban. The more sophisticated smugglers operate large private factories that turn out thousands of boxes of the top brands, although the tobacco quality and construction of these cigars will never approach the strict quality standards of a real Cuban factory. The Cuban police are trying to control the situation, but so far they are losing the battle. Additionally, some of these illicit cigar factories have sprung up in Central America, where there is an abundance of good rollers and tobacco. The cigars are shipped to the U.S. as non-Cubans and re-packed in counterfeit Cuban boxes.
The bottom line is that the cigar craze in America has awakened a deep thirst for Cuban cigars, which has spawned a whole underground industry. Unfortunately, the counterfeiters are getting better and better at their craft.