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Cuba looks to women for cigar sales

By Shasta Darlington, CNN
Plantation director Maria Luisa Alvarez with tobacco leaves hanging above her in a drying room.
Plantation director Maria Luisa Alvarez with tobacco leaves hanging above her in a drying room.
  • Cuban cigar makers unveil the Julieta, a slim cigar made for women
  • Women make up less than 10 percent of cigar smokers
  • International sales of cigars fell 8 percent in 2009
  • Cuban cigars are traditionally hand-rolled in factories

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Faced with a two-year slump in sales, Cuban cigar makers have unveiled a new weapon in the hunt for consumers: Julieta, a slim smoke made just for her.

The global recession, combined with anti-smoking laws, have put the squeeze on Cuba's hand-rolled stogies, one of the quintessential symbols of privilege.

International sales fell 8 percent in 2009 to $360 million following a 3 percent drop in 2008, according to Habanos S.A., a joint venture between Cuba and Britain's Imperial Tobacco Group.

Julieta, with its handsome gold and red bands, impressed distributors at Havana's annual cigar festival.

"I think to come up with a product that is appealing to women in terms of it's size, it's blend, it's packaging, can only be positive," said Jemma Freeman, of the UK-based Hunters & Frankau distributors.

"I think it's the right thing to do, I think there's a demographic out there hat's interested in smoking cigars, particularly women," she added as she it up.

But others, like Cigar Aficionado's James Suckling, were not optimistic."It's a bit of a girly cigar," he said puffing on the thin cigar. "I find it little bit patronizing really. I mean the women I know who smoke enjoy great cigars just like the cigars that guys smoke."

Women represent less than 10 percent of current consumers, something Habanos vice-president Manuel Garcia hopes to change.

Habanos produces 27 premium brands that can fetch more than $500 a box.

Video: Cuban cigars for women
Video: Cuban cigars battle sales slump
  • Cuba
  • Havana
  • Smoking

They get their start in the western province of Pinar del Rio, thanks to a combination of soil, climate, humidity and hundreds of years of tobacco-growing tradition.

"We're looking at another quality year," plantation director Maria Luisa Alvarez told CNN as she walked among the neatly planted rows of leaves.

The tobacco is then hung up in wooden drying houses that dot the lush countryside.

The cigars themselves are hand-rolled in traditional factories and converted mansions in Havana amid the clatter of tiny guillotines and the rich smell of tobacco.

Cuban stogies dominate the market for high-end cigars despite the U.S. trade embargo, which bans their sale in America.

Some U.S. consumers still manage to get their hands on the coveted merchandise, and even turned up at the recent Havana cigar festival, despite travel restrictions.

"It's been a dream come true for me to be in the land where it all happens," said a man, who declined to give his name.

"I hope in the not too far future, trade opens up and that Americans can enjoy like the rest of the world a product that they really desire," he said.

Cuban cigar makers no doubt agree, considering the United States is by far the biggest market for stogies.