A smoking ban, of the sort that has just arrived in London, would not have affected the average Romanian in the 1989. Even though he or she may well have had a stash of Kent filter cigarettes, there was no prospect of them ever putting a match to any of them. The reason: in the dark days of Ceausescu's Stalinist regime, the unit of currency on the black market was a pack of 20 American cigarettes.
At the time, I did my best to find out what on earth had led to this strange state of affairs. A shortage of dollars - which, until the euro arrived, was hard currency for the whole world - was said to be the reason. I was never quite sure why this particular brand of American cigarettes (complete with "Micronite Filters") rather than US dollar notes should be in greater supply, but the economics of state socialism always transgressed reason. Across in Russia, a single pack of Marlboro Lights was enough to get you a "taxi" ride across the capital, while Levi jeans and T-shirts with Western slogans said more about the visitor than cash ever could.
All currencies up to, and including, solid gold are based on what people believe them to be worth. While you can no longer turn up at the Bank of England at the heart of the City of London and ask for gold in return for your £5 note, if everyone believes those small pieces of paper to be worth a certain amount, that is sufficient for currency to work. And the simple laws of supply or demand mean that a shortage of a particular commodity pushes up the price. The borders that kept the citizens of the Warsaw Pact (or should that be Pack?) countries were far less porous than most, which is why the value of cigarettes could rise so high.
These days, you can pick up denim in Moscow for a song, and a packet of Kent in Romania for a couple of dollars; the value has fallen since the days when each single cigarette represented 50 US cents. But elsewhere in the world, business travellers will often stumble upon a non-monetary currency system. Johnny Walker Black Label is the liquor brand of choice in a lot of the developing world; while you can pick it up for the equivalent of $10 or $20 in duty-free stores, the premium blended Scotch is valued at many parts of the world - and in business terms can help to seal a deal more effectively than a substantial amount of money.
At the other end of the scale, in eastern India, sweets and chewing gum have replaced small change. The reason: the metal that rupee and paisa coins are made from is worth more than the face value. It is said that a cottage industry in Calcutta involves hoarding change and smuggling it across the border to Bangladesh, where the cash is smelted and turned into razor blades.
Some commodities in business travel could be "monetarised", ie bestowed with some tangible value. What would you give to ensure that your bag was first to appear on the carousel, or to avoid security queues? Sure, a business-class ticket can increase the chances of a smooth journey, but it should not be beyond the wit of the travel industry to come up with a bidding system to set a value on desirable outcomes.
Meanwhile, in Mexico City, I met an American who had come up with a whole new currency: the phone card. He was selling $10 cards ("I've made one short call to the US") for half-price. A good deal - except that by the time you have found a payphone to call home and announce your bargain hunting, he has scarpered and you discover that the card is empty. Value is in the eye of the beholder.Reuse content