One of the most prevalent questions South Jersey tobacco shops hear nowadays involves a product that’s still illegal for them to sell.

But the mystique of Cuban cigars — the forbidden leaf — may help local businesses if they ever become legal to sell in the U.S.

“There’s a tremendous amount of interest on the part of the consumer when they might become available,” said Andrew Kestein, owner of Smoker’s Haven, which has six New Jersey stores, including one in Northfield. “There’s a great misunderstanding: People think they’re available now, which they are not.”

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The U.S. and Cuba reopened embassies this week, the latest move to open components of the Communist country to Americans.

Intact still is the 1962 trade embargo that outlawed Cuba’s most renowned rolled-up export.

But the cigars will be relatively expensive.

Cuban cigars sold elsewhere in the world — from the Caribbean to Canada — can run from about $20 to nearly $100, local shop owners said.

Supply and demand will likely make them costlier if the U.S. — one of the largest cigar markets in the world — starts consuming them, they said.

That may price them outside most smokers’ budgets except for special occasions or the novelty of smoking a Cuban.

Jeff Melchiondo Sr., owner of Tobacco Road in Barnegat Township, said the top-end price of the cigars he sells now is about $30 apiece, with $20 the breaking point for how much most people are willing to spend.

That hasn’t stopped the inquiries.

“They’re asking all the time. They read something about Cuba, they see the embassies are open,” he said. “It’s like anything that’s illegal. Because it’s illegal, people want it.”

There is another issue: Americans might not like the taste of real Cubans, which have stronger, more robust profiles than what they’re used to, Melchiondo said.

Melchiondo, who has smoked Cubans on vacation in Bermuda, said some are good and some are not.

Kestein said he believes the real boom to the cigar industry will come several years after Cuban cigars are allowed for sale in the U.S., when Cuban tobacco gets blended with tobaccos from the Dominican Republic, Brazil and elsewhere.

“We’re going to have some absolutely phenomenal cigars. … I think it’s going to create a second cigar boom,” he said. “We all lived through the first one in the early ’90s.”

Restored relations with Cuba are controversial in the U.S., but a recent survey indicates Americans are warming to the idea.

A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday said 72 percent of Americans approved lifting the trade embargo, up from 66 percent in January.

And new regulations allow Americans to bring $100 worth of Cuban cigars into the U.S.

At J&J Cigars in Absecon, owner Rinku Patel said being able to sell Cubans would help his business, which he said has slumped because of the economy.

“Of course it will help if Cubans become available,” he said. “Some people, they are always looking for Cubans.”

Contact: 609-272-7253

Twitter @BIanieri

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Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.

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