Killing you softly

OK, you smoke, but you don't want to breathe just any old chemical nasties. `Natural' cigarettes are high in pure tobacco, so you `smoke less and enjoy it more'. Or so says the puff, reports Hester Lacey

AS THE Chancellor slaps 20p on a packet of cigarettes, smokers who don't wish to be bankrupted may like to consider the issues of quality versus quantity. The Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company has just launched Natural American Spirit Cigarettes in Britain, under the slogan "Smoke less and enjoy it more". Natural American Spirit are free of chemical additives such as benzene and saltpetre, tobacco scraps, and artificial flavourings (the manufacturers recommend keeping them in the fridge for added freshness). They already cost pounds 4 per pack, but because they contain more pure tobacco than other brands, smokers are supposed to feel the urge to smoke fewer of them. (Also, the fact that the tobacco is not "puffed" to make it more airy means that actually smoking them is harder work.)

Getting hold of them in the shops, however, can be a problem. They are a somewhat exclusive brand, currently available in this country at Harvey Nichols and a handful of other outlets (and via mail order). Johnny Depp, Courtney Love, Sean Penn, Mark Wahlberg, Jude Law, David Lynch, Robin Wright and Liv Tyler have all been spotted with the distinctive sky-blue packet, featuring an Indian chief in silhouette.

A taste-test in the Independent on Sunday's smoking room produced mixed results. Some Silk Cut smokers found them too strong. "These are really catching in my throat," complained one. Others took them in their stride. "Perfectly okay, not at all harsh," said another. "They're quite smokeable; I could smoke these," said one Camel Light devotee. Marlboro smokers were happiest with the switch.

The Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company has been extremely successful in the US since it launched American Spirit in 1985; it now has a multi-million- dollar turnover. Other brightly-packaged "natural" brands, marketed by independent, small companies have also done so well that the tobacco giants have been encouraged to develop their own "microbrands". Critics have accused the microbranders of deliberately targeting younger smokers; but Robin Sommers, founder of the company, points to his policy of not selling in vending machines, supermarkets or convenience-store chains, to make the cigarettes less easy for under-age smokers to buy. "The issue is that people are not going to stop smoking," Sommers has said. "Let's provide the best possible alternative."

Sommers himself is a non-smoker; a fact that has been picked up on in some biting editorial. "The Easter Bunny lives! And these cigarettes are healthier!" snorted Newsweek; while Forbes business magazine speculated that American Spirit smokers are "maybe just stupid".

But the brand still has a cult following. "I already have to deal with tar and nicotine and carbon monoxide. I don't want to have to deal with added chemicals and toxins, or the gunpowder used on papers of other cigarettes, or fibreglass filters," said one regular smoker from Capitol Hill. Others take the health factor with a considerable pinch of salt. "I tell people `You can get a cleaner form of cancer from these'," says Elliot Meacham of Steve's Broadway News in Capitol Hill.

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