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Saturday, June 6, 1998 Published at 17:40 GMT 18:40 UK

World: Americas

Illegal cigar trade clouds Cuban reputation

Havana cigars are one of Cuba's most profitable exports

BBC correspondent Tom Gibb reports from Havana, Cuba:

Havana cigars have long had the reputation as the best in the world, and have become one of the most profitable exports in Cuba's faltering economy. But there are worries now among some foreign importers that state producers are sacrificing quality for quantity.

Two years ago the island produced only 70 million hand-rolled cigars. The target is 160 million this year and 200 million next.

Defending quality

Now the Cuban government is organising visits to cigar factories to try to allay fears over quality. The head of Cuba's state-run tobacco producers, Osvaldo Encarnacion, claims that each Cuban cigar is a work of art and is rigorously checked at all stages for quality.

The authorities have, however, been unable to stamp out a thriving black market in counterfeit cigars, which is a side product of the industry's dramatic recovery.

Some estimates suggest more than a quarter of the tobacco destined for state factories is stolen by workers before it gets there. It is then sold to dozens of illegal workshops were counterfeits are made.

Paper rings with the brand names and even special state receipts are forged outside the country.

Many of these fake cigars are smuggled to the United States where boxes can sell for $700 or $800.

Cuban manufacturers say the black market could badly damage the reputation of the real cigars because, while the fakes look the same, they are often poor quality.

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