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CUBA — ¿si? or ¿no? Mississippi’s cigar lovers hold their breath

CigarBy Jack Weatherly

Cuban cigars have become, for many Americans, the stuff that dreams are made of.

That’s because the trade embargo imposed by the United States more than 50 years ago on the communist nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida has blocked legal sales in this country.

Now President Obama has struck a match by re-establishing diplomatic relations and proposing free trade and travel between the two countries.

There is much speculation about when free trade might happen, and if it will. For now, travelers can bring back cigars and alcohol worth no more than $100.

Lovers of premium, hand-rolled cigars can wait and hope —and maybe lobby, as much as they can — but producers of grain, such as rice and wheat, are more likely to tip the scales in favor of trade.

To get the full agreement, Obama needs help from the Republican Party, which gained control of the U.S. Senate in the November elections to go along with its domination of the House.

Neal Haddon, owner of a cigar lounge in Rankin County, expects that if the Cuban stogies are sold in open market in the United States they will be quite expensive.

The Caribbean country has continued to trade with other nations, and depending on how fast the Cuban cigar industry could ramp up to meet the pent-up demand in the United States, the cigars would be even more pricey than they are already, Haddon said.

A recent auction of Cuban cigars brought in more than $800,000 in London.

Brad Stephens, who with his father, Bill Stephens, owns four shops that sell cigars in the Jackson area, said that thus far there have been only a few inquiries about the Cuban smokes.

If trade is fully re-established, however, the cigars will be the “greatest thing since sliced bread,” Brad Stephens said.

Seeds from Cuban tobacco plants have found their way to other nations, such as the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, which make fine cigars.

But there is a mystique about the former Spanish colony liberated by America after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The soil is “rich, real soft, very nurturing,” Stephens said.

Two of the Stephenses’ shops have a smoking deck — the Havana Smoke Shoppe at 4760 Interstate 55 Frontage Road, and Humidor: World’s Finest Cigars at 1378 W. Government in Brandon.

Haddon said he and future business partner Richard Burgardt patronized the first cigar shop in Jackson, the Habana Smoke Shoppe, which is no longer in business.

A small members-only area in the back of the Habana was reserved for smoking cigars. Haddon and Burgardt liked its relaxed, melting-pot atmosphere.

“I remember many conversations where we had different points of view, but we’d sit there and kind of hash it out,” Haddon said.

That led Haddon and Burgardt to open a lounge, Godfather Cigars, three years ago in a small strip mall at 1149 Old Fannin Road near the Ross Barnett Reservoir.

The lounge features a bar and stools (no alcohol)  where patrons can blow as  much smoke as they want, surrounded by posters of cigar-smoking mafiosi both real (Al Capone) and movie actors, including Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.”

Manager Joe Hill says that when he lights up it’s a “moment of Zen.”

Haddon says cigars (he has an inventory of hundreds of brands in a controlled atmosphere room on the premises) are wrongly thrown into the cigarette camp. In recent years, ordinances in many cities have banned smoking in public places, whether private or public.

Mississippi had a lot to do with that perception of the habit.

It reached an unprecedented settlement with four large makers of cigarettes in 1997 on reimbursement of Medicaid costs linked to health problems related to smoking. That $3.4 billion case was followed the next year with a settlement of nearly $250 billion with most of the rest of the states. In addition to the cash settlements, advertising was severely restricted.

Most cigar smokers will tell you they don’t inhale, that nicotine content in cigars is not manipulated, unlike cigarettes’, hence there is relative safety. But medical researchers will tell you there is a cancer risk to the mouth.

Cigar makers have found a way to get their image before the public, though not broadly.

Pick up a copy of Cigar Aficionado magazine at a well-stocked newsstand and you’re liable to see a famous person on the cover, such as Matthew McConaughey, Robert Downey Jr. or even Justin Bieber.

In 1994, an edition had cigar-holding Fidel Castro on the cover and an exclusive interview with “El Presidente” inside. The current edition offers a free pocket guide to Cuba with a subscription.

Jim and Gwen Reeves opened The Country Squire in 1970 in The Quarter on Lakeland Drive, where it still operates.

Gwen Reeves, who ran the shop after her husband passed away in 1981 until her death in 2012, was on a first-name basis with one of the great cigar families, Haddon said.

She could call Carlos Fuente Sr., son of legendary cigar maker Arturo Fuente, a Cuban emigre, and place special orders, Haddon added.

The Fuente family established a cigar factory in Tampa that eventually became a booming success after the embargo was imposed.

The Country Squire is 90 percent pipe tobacco and pipes, but the shop has begun setting up cigar bars at weddings, according Timothy Gatewood, a seminary student who works in the shop.

The shop puts on a weekly podcast at country squire.com to spread the word about good tobacco.

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