The race after the smoking Indian
Now the environment-conscious have a tobacco to please them.
The law prohibits their display in store windows, but the moment you enter a 7-Eleven convenience store you cannot miss them: yellow, red, green and blue - these are the colors of the current revolution in tobacco marketing in the United States. The same drawing of a Native American chief puffing on a peace pipe adorns the four packs of American Spirit cigarettes (or Natural American Spirit).
There is no lack of customers throughout its native land for the organic tobacco that is the pride of American Spirit. The brand has been marketed with great success since 1982 by the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company. In 2002, the company was acquired by J.R. Reynolds, which owns the Camel brand. The company's annual turnover is now estimated at $300 million.
The American Spirit brand is the most successful of several organic tobacco brands that are widely available in the United States. Last year, it also began to distribute its products in Japan, Australia and Germany. It also reaches other markets in Europe via Germany.
Several importers in Israel are now very interested in the brand. "Everyone wants to lay their hands on this," says Yoram Ben-Dahan, the owner of the Aish [Fire] tobacco store on Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv. On the counter in front of Ben-Dahan are three half-empty packs of American Spirit, samples he brought here from abroad for his own use and to test his customers' interest. "Perhaps Tel Aviv is a bubble, but the feeling that there are no chemicals in the cigarettes is very tempting for people. There is a trend for healthfulness."
While Ben-Dahan is explaining the tax system that is currently preventing the entry of American Spirit cigarettes into the Israeli market, a customer walks into the store and is thrilled at the sight of the familiar logo. Silvia Cortes, who works at the Spanish Embassy in Israel, previously worked in Spain's mission to the United Nations. "When I was in New York, I only smoked this," she says. "Since then I stopped smoking, but now I'm picking up the habit again." Stuck without a pipe-smoking Indian, Cortes must settle for a pack of Marlboro.
Did Cortes indeed give up "healthfulness" when coming to Israel, where American Spirit is unavailable? Even the cigarette's manufacturers do not pretend that this is the case. The Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company declares that its products are free of 464 artificial additives used in cigarettes, but also notes on its Internet site: "No additives in our tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette." The company uses less harmful paper to wrap its cigarettes than its competitors do and does not conduct tests with animals. But it does not dare to present its product as a health product.
In any case, it is undoubtedly perceived as such in the eyes of many people. The positive values that serve American Spirit's marketing campaign, including an emphasis on the company's appreciation for the Native Americans' love of nature, attracts many customers who regard themselves as aware of their bodies and environment. They remove the inhibitions involved in the smoking habit and provide smokers with excuses that are usually effective vis-a-vis themselves and their surroundings. This problematic dimension of the brand stirred a wide public debate in the United States. A similar discussion will almost certainly arise here the moment the smoking Indian reaches our shores.
For the purposes of debate, here are the facts: As noted on the package, only the red pack of American Spirit cigarettes contains tobacco that is all grown according to the values of organic agriculture. The cigarettes in the other packs only meet the less demanding "natural" standard. They are indeed free of additives such as fertilizers and pesticides that increase the toxicity of regular cigarettes, but this is only half consolation, and perhaps even less.
Professor Ben-Ami Sela, director of the Institute of Chemical Pathology at Sheba Medical Center and a special adviser to the Israeli Cancer Association, notes that tobacco itself, as pure as it may be, includes 42 carcinogenic materials: "It may be that this brand does not include some of the harmful materials, but the carcinogens are an inseparable part of the tobacco itself." Clean or not, organic or not, American Spirit cigarettes will not reduce the carnage of smoking damage, which is said to be responsible for the deaths of about 10,000 people in Israel each year.
Moreover, the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company has been accused of marketing tobacco that is particularly rich in "free-base" nicotine, which tends to be more addictive. "The manufacturers can come up with a nice description like `organic cultivation' and if it turns out that this leads to a more effective nicotine, then their greatest dream will have come true," says Sela.
Sela explains that free-base nicotine is usually not the result of one method of growing or another, but rather by treating the tobacco leaves with ammonia. "When tobacco growers were caught using this process, they explained that it enriches the product's aroma. In fact, nicotine is connected to all sorts of salts and bases. The ammonia processing frees the nicotine from them, thus making it absorb more quickly into the bloodstream, and reach the brain faster."
Do such natural cigarettes really undergo such a process? According to the international contact person for the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, Mike Zarker, the answer is a decisive "no." Noting that he is not a scientist, he refrains from making an unequivocal declaration about whether free-base nicotine exists in his product. But he promises: "We do not process the tobacco with any material. We create a natural mix according to the taste and characteristics that we want to give to the final product, and the level of nicotine is in accordance." He adds that nicotine is the plant's natural bug repellent material.
And when will the company's natural bug repellent come to Israel?
"I cannot provide details due to business reasons," Zarker says from his office in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "But we have partners and are working together with them very patiently."
Does the Israeli market, with its burden of restrictions, deter the company?
"Restrictions are part of the spirit of the times in which we're living," he admits with a little shrug. He notes that the Israeli requirements for warning labels are problematic and expensive. The Health Ministry requires that tobacco importers make sure the products arrive in Israel with the warning labels against cigarette-related diseases already printed on their packages. It is difficult to convince company executives sitting in New Mexico to invest in printing equipment for Hebrew and Arabic labels while huge and relatively unrestricted markets await them in the Far East and elsewhere.
But, as noted above, there are those who are trying nonetheless. The brothers Amir and Eli Vardi, owners of the Smoke Shop stores in Jerusalem and the American Tobacco, Ltd. importing company, dream of stocking convenience stores in Israel with colorful packs of American Spirit. The two have been in contact with the company in the United States, and they are apparently the "partners" about whom Zarker spoke.
American Tobacco has already brought to Israel a container with packages of American Spirit tobacco for self-rolling. The taxes on tobacco for rolling are very different from the taxes imposed on cigarettes. The taxes on cigarettes leave a profit margin of only a few percent to be divided between the manufacturer, importer and distributor. This makes it difficult for small companies to bring new brands to the market so the vision of the Vardi brothers is quite daring. Nonetheless, the market anticipates a breakthrough. "It will happen, it will yet happen," says Ben-Dahan in his Tel Aviv store. He, like his competitors, "is now looking into the matter." Whether or not the Jerusalemites beat him to it, one can already smell the organic smoke in the air.