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Cuba looks to women to boost sagging cigar sales

* Cuba seeks to pitch famous cigars beyond male base

* Milder version of Romeo y Julieta cigar created

* Habanos has only modest hopes for 2010 after sales slip

HAVANA, Feb 22 (Reuters) - With anti-smoking laws and the global recession causing sales to fall, Cuba wants to develop a largely untapped market for its famous cigars -- women.

Habanos S.A. executives said on Monday sales fell 8 percent to $360 million in 2009, so they have created the Julieta, a smaller, milder version of the Romeo y Julieta cigar, aimed specifically at female smokers.

Women now make up only 5 to 10 percent of customers for Habanos, the worldwide distributor of Cuban cigars, marketing director Ana Lopez told a news conference kicking off the annual Habanos cigar festival.

The Julieta is an attempt to overcome perceptions among women that Cuban cigars are made up of “only strong tobacco for men,” she said.

The search for new markets is needed because even though Cuban cigars are considered the world’s finest, sales are slipping with the rise of anti-smoking laws around the world, said Habanos vice president Manuel Garcia.

The 8 percent sales drop in 2009 was preceded by a 3 percent fall, to $390 million, in 2008.

Even with the creation of the Julieta, Garcia said Habanos has only modest hopes for 2010 sales, due largely to a weak economy in Spain, the biggest market for Cuban cigars.

“We think it would be a very good result if we can at least maintain the (sales) we reached in 2009,” he said.

Habanos is a joint venture between Cuba and British tobacco giant Imperial Tobacco Group Plc.

Habanos -- which produces other well-known brands such as Cohiba, Monte Cristo, Trinidad and Partagas -- has about 71 percent of the sales in its markets, Garcia said.

The U.S. market, the largest in the world with 230 to 250 million cigars smoked annually, is off limits to Habanos due to the U.S. trade embargo imposed against Cuba since 1962. (Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Tom Brown and John O’Callaghan)