Demand for cigars is so strong that the sector is inundated with counterfeits. An estimated two thirds of cigars smoked in Lebanon are “fake”, with a Honduran, Dominican or Nicaraguan stogie attempting to pass itself off as the crème de la crème of smokes, the Cuban cigar. It is not easy to notice the difference until one sparks up, as the counterfeiters are pros, switching the paper ring around the cigar for a Cuban brand and using real or counterfeit boxes.
The situation has become such a concern to the legitimate sector that leading distributor, La Casa del Habano, owned by Phoenicia Trading, spent $50,000 this year on a billboard and media awareness campaign to inform consumers about fake cigars, particularly the Cohiba brand.
“The Cohiba Behike is the most expensive and the most popular right now,” said Wael Zeidan, executive manager at Phoenicia Trading. “We classify consumers of fakes into two segments — one, a consumer that knows it is a fake Cuban but smokes it to show off and doesn’t care. The second is a beginner that is easily bluffed, so we focus on him.”
To ensure that fake Cubans are not being put in boxes as the container empties — a classic scam to bump the price of a $2 cigar up to, say, $30 — Phoenicia has undercover employees that go in to check for fakes at its 300 wholesale customers. They are also opening a new outlet to better distribute Cubans from its current five stores.
While Honduras and the Dominican Republic do produce high quality cigars, primarily for the American market due to the trade embargo with Cuba since 1962, such brands are more expensive in Lebanon than Cuban cigars. Hence the fake Cubans are lower quality and normally machine made. One to watch out for is the Cohiba Siglo no.9, as real Cohibas only go up to size six. “It’s so big, it’s crazy,” said Zeidan.
Cohiba is the number one brand around the world, and in Lebanon this is no exception. Top sellers are the Robusto size (50-54 ring gauge), which is ideal for a half hour to one-hour smoke. Cigarillos — the small, lean cigar just a centimeter longer than a cigarette — are also becoming more popular, with Phoenicia Trading bringing out its own brand, Phoenicio.
“Demand for cigarillos is starting to grow, and women are increasingly smoking cigarillos,” said Zeidan. As cigars have a somewhat “old man” reputation, every month Phoenicia holds a breakfast cigar event for women in Ashrafieh, and has introduced cigarettes into Casa del Habano “to get youngsters into the shop and to find out about cigars,” said Zeidan. Pushing sales further are the cigar lounges at some of the capital’s leading hotels. At Le Gray, cigar nights are coupled with tastings of single malt whiskeys. And awareness of cigars is rising, said Paul Atallah, wine and bar manager at Le Gray.
“Some 80 percent of people know what they’re smoking. The rest, it’s just to show off that they are cigar smokers while swallowing the smoke,” he said. “But the culture has changed, and we’re seeing more people go for [brands] Partagas and Hoyo instead of Cohiba; this shows a change in awareness.” Most of the hotel’s cigar aficionados are guests from out of town but it is increasingly attracting non-guests to come to enjoy a cigar, sip an Armagnac and relax.
The economic downturn in the country has affected sales but the 400 percent rise in people smoking cigars since 1980 has provided a loyal customer base. “People get used to smoking cigars, and they continue to buy them,” said Zeidan. Indeed, big spenders are still out there. On a recent Saturday at La Casa del Habano in downtown, a customer bought a whopping five boxes of Cohibas as well as several packs of cigarillos.