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By Anthony Boadle

Facing public smoking bans around the world, cigar aficionados are spending more on finer smokes for the fewer opportunities they have to light up, and that boosted sales of Cuban cigars last year, makers said on Monday.

Habanos S.A., a joint venture between the Cuban state and Spanish-French tobacco group Altadis, said its sales of premium hand-rolled cigars rose 8 per cent to $370 million last year despite the growing bans.

Restrictions on smoking in public places now in effect in many countries, especially in bars and restaurants, have slowed unit sales, but not growth in sales value, as consumers buy more expensive cigars, Habanos Vice President Javier Terres said.

"We expect to grow again this year. It will not be double digits, but we think the market is pretty stable," he told reporters at the start of Havana's annual cigar festival.

"We believe that smokers of premium cigars are able to find the time and the place to smoke. People are smoking less, but smoking better cigars," Terres said.

At Cuba's cigar festival for five days, cigar lovers and retailers will puff away at the world's finest cigars, tour factories to see them being rolled by hand and visit tobacco plantations outside Havana.

Moving to meet rising demand for finer cigars, Habanos is making more products with aged tobacco leaves.

In the famed Cohiba brand, the company will unveil at this week's festival the Maduro 5 line of cigars, with dark wrapper leaves aged for five years.

It will also launch an entirely aged version of the Montecristo No. 4, the cigar industry most successful cigar ever -- more than 1 billion have been sold since it first appeared in 1935.

One-third of the 400 million hand-rolled cigars sold in the world each year are Habanos, but they are banned in the United States under four-decade-old trade sanctions against Cuba's communist government.

Excluding the United States, where half of the world's cigars are smoked, Cuba has 75 percent of the premium market.

A significant number of Cuban cigars are smuggled into the United States, but Terres said he had no figures.

Well-heeled cigar smokers from across the world will pay $500 to attend a lavish banquet closing the festival on Friday.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro will not be there to greet them, nor will his brother, acting President Raul Castro.

Castro, once a cigar-chomping guerrilla, has not appeared in public since he underwent emergency stomach surgery and handed over power to his brother seven months ago.

The 80-year-old revolutionary gave up smoking cigars in 1986 and has said tobacco is a poison and boxes of cigars are best given to one's enemies.

As for his brother, "Raul Castro is not the kind of person to attend this type of event," said Habanos Vice President for Sales, Manuel Garcia. "Besides, he does not smoke."


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