Still wanna be in Kate's gang?

Banned from the screen, banished from bars and blamed for bad skin, cigarettes are very uncool. But the industry is fighting back. Josh Sims talks to the people selling smokes to the iPod generation
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The Independent Online

Cigarettes used to be chic. They epitomised effortless style and glamour, just look at Kate Moss. But times have changed. Health warnings scream off the packs. Turn on the TV, and you are as likely to see a film of the devastating health effects of smoking as you are to see a star light up. "Anybody got a match?" Lauren Bacall famously husked - but that was then.

Last week the annual report of Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, slammed the fashion industry and its models for "aiding and abetting" the promotion of smoking among young people, despite the habit being "totally at odds" with looking good. He suggested a new emphasis on what smoking does to one's facial features as a way to counter its appeal.

The tobacco industry is being forced into ever more clever ways of giving its products the appealing and sexy edge they once had. Earlier this year, Peter Lloyd, who runs a chain of tobacconists in Wales, and the former dot.com businessman (and non-smoker) Martin Ferguson-Jones introduced the wittily-named Shag, the first independent cigarette brand to launch in the UK since the Enlightened Tobacco Company created Death cigarettes in 1991. Shag is targeted solely at the youth and student market.

Meanwhile, the cigar maker Davidoff has been talking to the French design house Ora-ito about a review of its products, and there are plans to introduce a range of limited-edition cigarette accessories. This could be smoking for the iPod generation.

And in the United States last week, the Illinois Attorney General filed suit against Brown & Williamson, makers of the Kool cigarette brand, accusing it of targeting underage smokers with its latest Kool Mixx promotion, which includes a range of CD-Roms featuring music-mixing software, compact radios and special-edition packs featuring DJs and the dance scene.

Dr Stephen Joseph, a health psychologist at the University of Warwick, says: "The industry has been very successful at promoting a positive image despite restrictions and changes in public perceptions. For instance, the pose of Humphrey Bogart with his cigarette doesn't exist socially any more, but it lingers as an expression of masculinity, control and adulthood. And none of us are beyond the effects of image."

Or, as it was put in one infamous 1972 in-house memo by Claude Teague, the assistant chief of research and development at the US tobacco company RJ Reynolds: "[The smoker] appears to start to smoke for purely psychological reasons - to emulate a valued image, to conform, to experiment, to defy, to be daring... We somehow must convince him with wholly irrational reasons that he should try smoking."

Certainly, the UK industry faces a regulatory onslaught. Bans on smoking in public places, such as were introduced in Ireland in March, are on the cards. Last week the brewers Greene King announced a new policy that is likely to lead to a ban on smoking in half of its 550 pubs. Under the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002, which came into force in February last year, the industry is banned from advertising. Point-of-sale promotion was restricted further earlier this year. A ban on tobacco sponsorship - affecting, most famously, Formula One motor racing - is due to come in next year. Further legislation will restrict the creation of tobacco-brand spin-offs, such as clothing lines.

That's not all. The British Board of Film Classification has just completed research for a policy overhaul, due to be published in November. This is expected to further curtail scenes of smoking in films likely to be watched by children or impressionable youth, or that are inappropriate to the film's character, place and time.

Such restrictions have tended to force the tobacco industry into more ingenious promotion. In 1965, cigarette advertising was banned on UK television, but the next year sales leapt by six billion cigarettes: the industry simply turned to more subtle methods. It now leads the way in internet-based marketing, for example. And many big tobacco groupsare targeting the 320 million young, mostly student, smokers in China.

Simon North of the London advertising agency CDP, which developed campaigns for Benson & Hedges, Hamlet cigars and Silk Cut, says: "Historically, the industry has faced such a long list of rules that it has had to be extremely creative in whatever avenues are left to it. More contemporary looks and innovation in packaging is one way. But there's almost nothing we can do in the UK now. The fact is, though, that tobacco manufacture is essentially a global concern now, so marketing messages are still seen by consumers in the UK."

The number of smokers in developed countries has been in gradual decline since the Seventies. But in the UK, teen smoking is at the same level, and early twentysomethings - the most impressionable customer segment to which the tobacco industry can legally market - are still the most smoking-friendly group: 38 per cent of the UK's 13 million smokers are between 20 and 24. So, while factors such as peer pressure play a role in making non-smokers (or "pre-smokers", as the industry calls them) start, and nicotine keeps them smoking, the industry faces the increasingly tough question: how can it make smoking cool?

"The problem for the industry is that, objectively, cigarettes are not attractive products," says Amanda Sanford of the lobby group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). "They're dry brown leaves and chemicals rolled up in paper, for which there's no natural need.

"That's not the image the tobacco industry wants. It wants to portray smoking as glamorous, sophisticated, cool and grown-up, because that works: young people want to be accepted and seen as attractive, an image perpetuated by models and film stars smoking. Young people are gullible to that kind of thing."

But Michelle McKeown, a spokesperson for Gallaher, the Bristol-based maker of Silk Cut, counters: "We need to maintain the right to communicate with adult smokers. It is, after all, a legal product. In this climate, you're fortunate if you have brands with heritage and established identities. Image has been and is important to our brands. But it's going to be very hard to launch new ones. And, while there is no such thing as a safe cigarette, if a safer one is developed, how will we communicate that?"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the industry is largely defensive on these topics. There is an unspoken agreement to stick to the party line: the industry argues, for instance, that all marketing is targeted at adults and that its aim is to instil brand loyalty, or encourage a change of brand, rather than to create new smokers. And, the industry says, licence agreements - by which products such as clothing and fashion (for example, Salem Attitude clothing, Marlboro Classics clothing and Camel Boots) and fragrances are aimed at style-conscious people - are separate arrangements from which their tobacco brands do not benefit in terms of increased awareness.

"We use the communication channels that are available to us," says Christine Mohrmann, UK spokesperson for Philip Morris, the owners of the Marlboro brand. "But we don't consider Marlboro Classics to be part of our tobacco marketing, because we have nothing to do with the clothing."

But the cigarette industry has always been aware of the cool factor. Tara Parker-Pope, in her bookCigarettes: Anatomy of an Industry (New Press), says that about 15 per cent of the price of a packet is spent on marketing, an unusually high figure.

One of the earliest tobacco advertising media was cigarette cards, emphasising smoking's relationship with sex and attractiveness through their selection of alluring models, war heroes and sportsmen. One study has found that about 60 per cent of cigarette ads from the late Thirties to the early Eighties pushed a "health" theme, featuring glowing models and outdoor scenes.

The industry embraced other psychological tactics. "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet" was a tagline for Lucky Strike, suggesting that smoking is an appetite suppressant and smokers are invariably slender. This is still a persuasive sales tool today: according to a new study by ASH, one in four girls in the UK is smoking by the age of 15 in the belief that it will keep her thin.

At least the people at Shag seem prepared to come clean. "With the never-ending hammer-down of regulations here and the anti-health message, we wanted to create a light-hearted name that would market itself," says Peter Lloyd, chairman of the Shag Tobacco Company. "It's a cool name, too, with a new, cool, young logo. As with any product, image is important to cigarette consumers. The UK industry has its hands tied now, but it has to promote somehow, especially to the twentysome-thing market. And there's really only two ways to go in the kind of cigarette market we have: you either sell on price, or you go for a niche market with something perhaps exclusive or cool," Lloyd says. Shag has also launched in Belgium, and is now tackling South Africa.

Philip Morris seems to have thought along similar lines. Last month, in the north of England, it launched Basic, which is pitched at the ultra-low price category, but also - unusually, and arguably an attempt to appeal to the young, increasingly design-conscious consumer - with a pack in a contemporary style, either in silver or royal blue, with a distinctive "B" logo.

The power of the pack should not be underestimated. Typically, the industry uses traditional typefaces, gold, embossing, crests and the like to give the pack perceived value. Studies by Professor Alex Gardner have suggested that this encourages smokers to regard their packet as a toy, or as a means of defining personal space in a social situation.

But the major hurdle facing the UK tobacco industry is far bigger than new brands and styles can address - increasingly, that the vital youth sector does not regard smoking as cool, whatever the supermodel Kate Moss might do. "Smoking used to be considered cool because it represented rebellion," says Matthew Hirst, a consultant for Headlight Vision, the London trend-consultancy. "Icons who smoked made it sexy. But that cool is wearing off.

"British youth are more health-conscious. They don't even drink tap water. And there's evidence to suggest that a new conservative element is growing among the leading edge. For them, rebelling against obvious signs of rebellion is the coolest thing you can do. Picking up cigarettes is just too easy, and in the long term, that could spell doom for the tobacco companies. In the short term, they're going to have to double their inventiveness to give cigarettes any cool at all."

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