The Marlboro Man may be under siege in the courts and in Washington, but there is an unlikely bright spot for the beleaguered American tobacco industry. It is the growing market for so-called all-natural, no-additive cigarettes.
This unlikely path into the nation's lungs has been blazed by a fringe New Mexico brand called "Natural American Spirit". While puny in national sales terms, its chemical-free cigarettes have become de rigueur for the cool-conscious young, from models to members of the scruff-rock set.
Sold in soft-packs with American Indian imagery, including an Indian chief with feathered head-dress drawing on a pipe, "American Spirit" are burned by the likes of Hollywood star John Cusack and model-turned film actor, Mark Wahlberg. Sales have been growing at up to 95 per cent a year.
And now the big boys are taking notice. In a move that riveted the whole of the industry, R.J. Reynolds last year reinvented their Winston cigarettes by reducing their content to tobacco only (leaving aside the sodium-soaked paper). Philip Morris may soon follow suit.
Accompanying the new Winstons has been an advertising campaign larger and more expensive than any previously attempted by RJR. All the spots carry variations of the same basic message: real people prefer real cigarettes. "No Bull," the billboards scream. Other tag lines have included, "I get enough bull at work. I don't need to smoke it".
The bull, by the way, are the some 599 different cigarette additives that the manufacturers have recently been forced by the courts for the first time to make public. They range from flavourings like cinnamon, chocolate and liquorice to more noxious-sounding substances like ammonia and freon.
The early signs are that the ploy is working for R.J. Reynolds. After losing market-share consistently over several years to Marlboro, Winston is gaining ground again. In the first quarter that the new Winstons were available, their market share rose from 5.4 to 5.8 per cent.
Unsurprisingly, foes of tobacco are alarmed. A coalition of health groups, including the Heart and Lung Association, has even petitioned the government to force Winston to drop its no-bull campaign.
"You do have to be concerned," commented Martin Feldman, a tobacco analyst at Smith Barney in New York that has been tracking the sales recovery of Winston. "The public has to be aware that this product is no healthier than an ordinary American blend cigarette with all the additives."
Feldman underlines that the statistics on mortality rates among smokers are no different between the UK and the US. And yet most smokers in Britain, if they are buying mainstream brands like Silk Cut, are already getting a Virginia blend more or less devoid of additives.
In fact, neither RJR nor American Spirit make explicit health claims about their all-tobacco cigarettes. But the public may still be being duped. A favourite retail outlet for American Spirit cigarettes, for instance, is health food chains whose very existence is premised on healthier consumption.
In Barclay-Rex, a swank tobacconist on New York's Lexington Avenue, a customer is pondering trying them for the first time. "Those other brands, they have all the chemicals and they just kill you slowly," offers Candido, the man behind the counter. He adds: "Of course, these will kill you slowly too, but anyway..." And the sale is made.
but how do they taste?
On the pleasure-meter, the American Spirit regular filter cigarette does fine. This is a cigarette with a definite bouquet of, well, tobacco. Missing is the slight sweet tinge found at the tongue tip after a Marlboro regular. No liquorice or cocoa in this smoke.
The American Spirit burns a little differently. It may be fractionally harder to draw on than a Marlboro and leave it burning on the ashtray and the ash grows longer and longer without ever dropping off.
Does this smoker feel a rush of health-conscious righteousness from taking a smoke that advertises itself as all- natural? Not quite. So far there is no sign of my winter-long cough abating.
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