Yesterday the Obama administration announced that it is decriminalizing something you probably did not realize was a crime: smoking Cuban cigars while traveling abroad. While most Americans are familiar with the ban on bringing Cuban cigars into the country (which was already loosened a bit for U.S. citizens and residents traveling legally to Cuba), the ban on buying them for consumption in other countries (none of which went along with the U.S. embargo) is more obscure and even more ridiculous.
Under a regulation adopted in 2004, the embargo against Cuba was explicitly extended to purchases in third countries. As the Treasury Department explained:
The question is often asked whether United States citizens or permanent resident aliens of the United States may legally purchase Cuban origin goods, including tobacco and alcohol products, in a third country for personal use outside the United States. The answer is no. The Regulations prohibit persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States from purchasing, transporting, importing, or otherwise dealing in or engaging in any transactions with respect to any merchandise outside the United States if such merchandise (1) is of Cuban origin; or (2) is or has been located in or transported from or through Cuba; or (3) is made or derived in whole or in part of any article which is the growth, produce or manufacture of Cuba. Thus, in the case of cigars, the prohibition extends to cigars manufactured in Cuba and sold in a third country and to cigars manufactured in a third country from tobacco grown in Cuba.
Although it's not clear whether this rule was ever actually enforced (or how that would have worked), violations of the embargo were notionally punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine or a civil penalty of up to $55,000. But effective today, the Treasury Department says, "persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction may purchase or acquire Cuban origin merchandise, including alcohol and tobacco products, while in a third country provided such products are consumed while in a third country."
Bonus: Jacob Grier considers what warmer relations with Cuba will mean for cigars.