American Spirit and The Spirit of Memory
Although you hear plenty of stories about great companies that started in someone’s garage it’s comparatively rare for any of us to actually be involved at that stage. But in the case of the American Spirit tobacco company I was involved with the garage stage.
Memories -the early 80’s -my first few years in Santa Fe- appeared when I read the article Nature’s Cancer Sticks in this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek. This lengthy piece goes into the history of the brand’s founding and evolution over the last couple of decades -in providing the context behind a pending class action complaint against its present owner RJ Reynolds for advertising “in a false and misleading manner.”
As Bloomberg notes this is the brand’s “bar mitzvah,” it’s coming of age moment in light of the way all the big brands have been attacked over the years. And as Bloomberg notes what’s really amazing here is not the specific issue of the truth in advertising but how well the marketing for the brand has done.
In contrast to an industry that’s seen a 17% decline in sales since 2009 Natural American Spirit has seen an 86% rise in sales during the same period.
It’s not hard to understand as the brand garnered its critical mass at the same time as the natural health movement was picking up real steam. Whole Foods even carried the brand for a number of years in its early days. And when you factor in the celebrity endorsement of American Spirit by the likes of Sean Penn and Gwyneth Paltrow plus all the hipsters it’s not hard to understand the allure and its translation into sales.
According to the article the fact that cigarette manufacturers can legally use over 500 different additives in their brands makes no difference-it’s the smoke itself-not the additives that makes smoking tobacco a health risk.
That’s not what my friend from that time- the late Robert Marion-one of the founders of American Spirit told me when he started the company. It was the additives he said. If those studying tobacco risks weren’t talking about what happens when you burn these different chemicals in the tobacco than they weren’t presenting a true picture of the differences between his American Spirit approach and the standard industry practice.
I became a true believer while being part of the flotsam jetsam of friends and followers who so often surround a startup in its early days. I would go over to Robert’s garage and unpack 50 gallon barrel sized containers of tobacco that had been shredded (by the RJ Reynold’s facilities in NC) for packing into the pouches the company first began selling their tobacco in before they got into cigarettes.
To me it was obvious there was a difference. You saw it in the way American Spirit burned. It would go out after a moment while Camels and all other brands would continue to burn down.
Drum tobacco was one brand he signaled out as a perfect example of what he was talking about. “Drum has anti-freeze in it, that’s what keeps it moist.” I liked Drum at the time. I’d gotten used to it when I lived in Montreal in the 1970’s. There my artist and pirate friends would use it to roll their splifs Euro style.
But I saw the difference with the American Spirit. Unlike Drum it didn’t stay moist. In fact it dried out very quickly so that as you rolled a cigarette it would be falling all over the place instead of allowing itself to be rolled like Drum.
Except for a call in the mid-80’s I fell out of contact with Robert as we’d moved to NYC for a few years before returning out west.
It was during the time in New York that I had to explore different options for my smoking needs as American Spirit had no distribution at the time out of the state of New Mexico. Even the Gem Spa-the famous newsstand and tobacco store in the East Village where we lived-didn’t carry them.
But the meme about additive free had taken hold. I couldn’t go back to Drum or Bugler and certainly none of the typical American brands.
What I ended up doing was buying foreign brands from Turkey and Egypt and occasionally some from Germany that used Turkish tobacco. My reasoning was-and this is Robert talking- these countries couldn’t afford to use all the different additives nor did their traditional cultivation and manufacturing rely on them.
Occasionally I smoked Galois and Gitane-the dark tobacco made cigarettes favored by the French working man-but they just end being too harsh and probably laced with additives.
I did the burn test and found that the tobacco from the Middle East didn’t keep burning if you put a cigarette down. And the boxes themselves were beautifully packaged. I found some the other day and posted them here. Sometimes I can’t believe what I was spending on a pack of these in those days. 1986 in NYC I was paying $4.00 and more per pack of my Egyptian smokes. But they were sublime. So smooth. In fact one brand’s cigarettes were 4” long with half of it hollow-like a cigarette holder of old-so that the smoke arrived in your mouth like a breath..
They did have a pungent air. People around me would often describe them as smelling like “ dung” burning. Once during a stay in San Francisco-when you could still smoke in cafes-I was asked by the manager of a café in North Beach to put my Turkish cigarette out since people were complaining about the smell. But the smell was a “scent” to me and I never had a problem with them-the smoke was too good.
But as attacks against smoking ramped up and higher duties (in addition to taxes) were added to foreign cigarettes they began disappearing from stores around the country. The foreign companies just weren’t making enough money in this country to justify selling them here while paying the increased duties. So all those beloved brands like you see pictured are no longer available.
And as they all were labeled “for Export Only,” I’ve never found them overseas-not even in Cairo.
That said, one thing that will never go up in smoke are my recollections and admiration for some people who tried to bring a better quality experience to a habit that’s been a part of human culture for thousands of years.
R.I.P. Robert Marion.