In 1991, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, the makers of “100% additive-free natural tobacco cigarettes” brought “100% certified organic tobacco” to market. At first, this tobacco was made in small batches, and was only available as pouch tobacco. Later, they launched a line of cigarettes containing the organic tobacco, and advertised it as “THE ONLY CIGARETTE made with 100% organic tobacco.”
The organic movement has grown tremendously over the past couple decades, with natural food store chains like Whole Foods sweeping the nation, and Farmer’s Markets springing up in many young, hip neighborhoods. “Organic” has thus become an Eco buzz word which attracts the health-conscious young adult. Many Americans are willing to spend a little more money for a product which bears a label boasting one or more of these buzz words. The Natural American Spirit Web site promotes this action, explaining, “In order to encourage farmers to convert from conventional tobacco growing methods, we pay our growers almost twice as much per pound for organic tobacco as they would receive for conventionally grown tobacco.” This statement implies that organic tobacco is worth more money, and therefore must be beneficial.
Natural American Spirit goes the extra mile to target the recent wave of eco-friendly, progressive, environmentalists, who as a general rule, happen to be young and alternative – the classic target audience for cigarette manufacturers. They manage to hit all of the happening buzz words in their quest to promote themselves as virtuous and well-intentioned, masking the fact that they sell a harmful product, whether or not they do so in a “sustainable” way. Ad copy demonstrates the prolific use of buzz words: “We grow our premium natural tobacco in a responsible, sustainable way through our earth-friendly and organic growing programs. We also strive to reduce our footprint on the earth by using recycled materials and renewable energy sources like wind power. Protecting the earth is as important to us as it is to you.”
An Internal tobacco industry document reveals the marketing strategy and target audience explicitly(1). The document explains that the Natural American Spirit brand is “seeking health-conscious, ‘back-to-basics,’ YAS” (YAS is an industry acronym for Young Adult Smoker). The document also elucidates that Natural American Spirit cigarettes were only sold at specialty retail stores and natural foods stores in order to “maintain image as ‘alternative’ natural tob. [tobacco] supplier.” The targeted demographic groups are “Progressive young adults, Previous Camel Lights smokers, Generation X hippies, Naturalists, ecologists, [and] Alternative lifestyle smokers.”
Another internal tobacco document reveals that their “marketing appeals to consumers’ intelligence” by offering a “sense of full disclosure” (2). Publications like “Vegetarian Times” and “Mother Earth News” were primary outlets for advertising. Most shocking are the consumer quotes provided in this document: The document explains that “imagery reassures consumers about their choice to smoke,” with evidence from the following quote from a consumer’s letter: “Since using American Spirit cigarettes…my husband sees that his desire to smoke is as old and natural as humanity itself.” Finally, even though the company itself is not owned or operated by Native Americans in any way, the document confirms that Natural American Spirit “imagery also creates ties to American Indians,” as a consumer is quoted as saying, incorrectly, “I think it’s made by a Native American Company. I feel like I’m supporting a deserving group.”
Natural American Spirit advertisements printed after 2000 include an extra warning box in addition to the Surgeon General’s Warning. This message warns consumers that “No additives in our tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette.” The FTC mandated that Santa Fe Natural Tobacco include this warning, exactly as is on all of its Natural American Spirit ads (3). The hope was that this warning would alert consumers that natural tobacco does not mean safer tobacco. The 1995 industry document mentioned earlier revealed that there was a “perceived health benefit” to Natural American Spirit, with consumers reporting, unfounded, that “They’re a hell of a lot better for you” or “You feel it’s going to be better for you. It’s all natural” (2). The question is, did this perceived health benefit change after the FTC warning label mandate in 2000? If popular culture is any clue, the answer is no; As recently as 2008, the female protagonist, April (Isla Fisher), in the romantic comedy “Definitely, Maybe” discusses the health benefits she feels she receives when smoking Natural American Spirit cigarettes over Marlboros, the choice of the male protagonist, Will (Ryan Reynolds). When will asks incredulously why she is willing to pay so much for a pack of cigarettes, April responds that “They don’t put as many chemicals in them.” He pushes, “So those are healthy cigarettes,” and she says, “Something like that.” She also tells him, as he holds a pack of Marlboros tightly, “They put saltpeter in your cigarettes, which make them burn faster, which make you smoke more.” Clearly, perceived health benefits of natural cigarettes are still rampant in mainstream popular culture, a dangerous misconception.