About two years ago, I started spending a good amount of time at these underground, vaguely illegal dance parties. Despite the fact that the bouncers diligently enforce an over-21 door, nobody ever cares if you smoke inside. I’m guessing because they don’t want people congregating outside the party door and blowing their cover.
I can pretty much deal with the fact that when I get home, my hair and clothes reek of cigarette smoke. That’s the price I pay for getting to dance for eight hours and drink $4 beers. And in a warehouse, it’s not so bad, with high ceilings that lets the smoke to dissipate.
But the worst are the people who drunkenly smoke on the dance floor, waving their cigarettes around, blowing smoke in your face and burning you with the orange glowing ember of their poisonous little toy. Then they get self-righteous about it when you point out that your sweater has a cigarette shaped hole in it now, thanks to them.
At this point, I would honestly prefer that you smoke a crack pipe on the dance floor.
(Or an eco-friendly e-cig. I don’t mind those at all.)
I’m also bored with the people congregated outside a bar near my apartment, and that I have to walk through a haze every time I go by. And the people who smoke in the park when I’m trying to get some semblance of fresh air. And the people who smoke as they walk down the sidewalk. Just hold up a middle finger to everyone behind you, please.
Smoking is over. It’s a tattered remnant of an earlier era. In trying to think of an appropriate analogy that captures the role smoking plays in popular culture at this moment, the best I can come up with is if Self Mutilation and Bad Hygiene fell in love and borrowed sperm from Hoarding, their baby would probably look like smoking. It’s an incomprehensible bad habit that people who don’t have their shit together do that makes everyone around them annoyed. It smells bad. It makes your apartment repulsive. It makes you a chore to kiss. And it has increasingly become correlated with lower income and lower levels of education. Only freshman college students think it’s cool. Only French and Italian people think it’s normal. And it’s only admirable for the rare badass souls over 75 who don’t give a shit, like wealthy former socialites and fishermen.
What really sucks is that I have friends–all party people–who smoke. In every other way, they are authentic, smart, and kind people. They just do this one thing that makes me not want to be around them. I just sort of pretend I don’t see it, because I’m sure they know it sucks. (Though I did lecture one dear friend–hard–who decided to start smoking recently. Then I let it go and we shall never speak of it again.) It’s sort of like having a friend who has terrible taste in men. You love them anyway, but it’s a struggle to keep your mouth shut. At least with your friend who is dating the misogynist pig, you don’t come away from hanging out with them reeking of bad choices, one step closer to getting lung cancer.
And I’ve noticed something: people who live in Brooklyn and who like the idea of buying organic, locally-made artisan food, like smoking American Spirit cigarettes. This confused me, so I decided to do some investigating.
Hipsters Love American Spirit
It’s not just people I know in the scene that smoke American Spirit, which come packaged in colors reminiscent of a kid-friendly dime store from the 50s, with an Indian smoking a pipe on the front. It’s been spotted clutched in the manicured paws of such It Girls as Chloe Sevigny, Alexa Chung, Alyssa Milano, Kate Hudson, and Kirstin Dunst. Katherine Heigl, from what I can tell, is an especially heavy and ardent smoker of the Spirit. Gwyneth Paltrow, lover of all things farcically healthy and organic and natural and overpriced, admitted to Harper’s Bazaar that she smokes once a week, and her cigarette of choice is American Spirit.
American Spirit used to set up an air conditioned tent and hand out free packs at Coachella, before giving out free cigarettes was banned. A 1997 report described American Spirit smokers as artists or activists, who read “hippie and intelligent/successful” magazines like the New Yorker or The Atlantic, and were likely to “hang out in Greenwich Village at a non-trendy bar” or “have friends over for dinner and drink microbrews.” That was in 1997, so replace Greenwich with Williamsburg, and you get the point. It’s telling that my boyfriend, who lives in Williamsburg, gets American Spirit direct mail once or twice a year. I, who have lived in Gramercy for three years, have never received a mailing.
A Chicago Tribune article from the same year said that health food stores were carrying American Spirit. A shop owner on San Francisco’s Haight Street said he has a customer who no longer spit up blood after switching to American Spirit. Wow. That is heartwarming. Really.
Of course, that was back in the 90s, but it still holds true. A vegan blogger wrote this past December, “I see how strange it is that I espouse a healthy vegan lifestyle yet I smoke cigarettes. I tell myself that I’m AT LEAST smoking American Spirits so I’m not inhaling as many chemicals (ha), but in truth, I know what I’m doing is hurting me in the long run. And in the short run.”
American Spirit packs were included in the “hipster traps” set around Brooklyn a few years back. And as one store clerk put it:
People who buy American Spirits fall into one of two categories: One, the kind of people who think that because American Spirits are, and I quote, “100% additive free natural tobacco”, that it means that it’s better than the “trash” those other simpletons buy (yes, a regular of mine did use the word “trash” to describe other brands). Two, the kind of people who think that because American Spirit is “natural”, and it has a pipe-smoking Indian as a mascot, it’s, like, totally less destructive on the environment, man! American Spirit cares about the earth, and poor small-time tobacco farmers!
When you get this many people who love craft brews and pickling smoking cigarettes, you end up getting reviews like this:
“The taste is unprecedented. The flavor is loudly bold for a light cigarette, but I see that as a plus because they do maintain a light yet balanced drag. One of my favorite things is how when I smoke these, I feel the urge to smoke less, not just because they’re American Spirits, a cigarette done right, but I even crave these less … because they leave you not only more satisfied, but also, for some unexplainable reason, offer a smoker a little bit more control over one’s habit.”
It’s like a combination of a review of a craft brew and quinoa.
And I’m not sure what this tells you, dear reader, but I had to include this gem for entertainment value: ”Oh my Buddha! These cancer sticks give me the case of the runs. because every time i smoke one of the american spirits i just flat out crap my pantie loafers.”
What pantie loafers are, I have no idea. I think that reviewer might just be a crackhead.
Ben & Jerry’s for Smokers
Why this slavish, if a bit conflicted, devotion? Well, anyone who smokes them will point to the fact that American Spirit cigarettes are free of the long list of disgusting additives present in conventional cigarette brands. “I feel better about smoking Spirits as I’m not inhaling ratpoison and carpet glue and all the other additive crap in most cigs,” one reviewer says. And because they don’t have all those additives, they are also vegan. (Other brands use additives made from animal products.) Finally, they take longer to smoke, which, according to my friends, can be a positive or negative.
American Spirit very deliberately ticks many other conscious consumer boxes. They have two organic versions: full-bodied and mellow, which leads many uninformed consumers to delude themselves into thinking they are safer. (American Spirit has been so good at implying health, that expectant mothers turn to them instead of quitting.) They refuse to do animal testing. They donate money to causes like restoring the Sante Fe River in New Mexico and Keep America Beautiful. They’ve teemed up with Terracycle to allow consumers to send in cigarette butts for recycling. (I’m intensely curious to know if anyone has sent in their butts. Probably not, since you get just $1 for every 1,000 butts you send in.) They extend benefits to their employees’ same-sex domestic partners. And while they are not actually affiliated with Indians, they like to say that the cigarettes are, “based on our belief in the traditional American Indian usage of tobacco—in moderation and in its natural state.”
Like organic food, organic tobacco is a growth market where consumers are willing to pay a premium, about twice as much for the tobacco itself. (Though it doesn’t seem like twice as much, because in NYC and New York State taxes make up the bulk of the price.) As of 2008, Santa Fe was seeing its sales grow by more than 10 percent each year.” There’s no reason to think that has changed.
This is all planned, of course. Since 1985, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, American Spirit’s parent company, has advertised in publications like Mother Earth News and Whole Earth Review and still advertises in liberal publications such as Mother Jones and The Nation as well as more mainstream magazines like Elle, Lucky and Marie Claire. In their early ads, American Spirit was first touted as the cigarette for people who “smoke out of choice rather than habit.” Though at this stage, who would smoke out of choice, especially if they are the kind of person who likes their shampoo paraben free?
It seems that American Spirit is for those who smoke out of habit, but find it easier to justify the habit rather than actually just quit.
The Bad News
There are a few tar stains on Natural American Spirit’s otherwise pristine reputation. For one, it’s no longer a scrappy, independently owned company. It is owned by R.J. Reynolds, the world’s second largest tobacco company behind Philip Morris, and owner of Camel, Winston, Salem, Kool, Pall Mall and other very un-cool and un-indie brands associated with the uneducated masses of West Virginia.
There’s also the problem of cigarette butts. They look compostable, but all of them have plastic filters inside, which get washed out to sea where marine life eats and chokes on them. Cigarette butts account for one quarter or more of litter, and are the most common debris collected from beaches and inland waterways during Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup. A recent study showed that cigarette waste is toxic enough with heavy metals to be labelled by city and state agents as “toxic waste.” I wonder if American Spirit smokers are more likely than other smokers to toss their butts out in an approved receptacle?
And there’s the whole cancer aspect.
You can still get cancer from organic tobacco. It’s not the additives, though those don’t help, but the smoke itself from the combustion of the tobacco leaf that you inhale into your lungs. When smoking an organic American Spirit, you will inhale carbon monoxide, particulate matter, carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and toxic nitrosamines. In Germany, where they actually regulate stuff that causes cancer, ads for “organic” cigarettes have been banned because of fears that they they mislead consumers into thinking they’re a healthier product. Which they do.
Here in the U.S., ads for organic cigarettes aren’t banned, but after a 1997 lawsuit, American Spirit was forced to put a disclaimer on its site and ads that says, “Organic tobacco does not mean a safer cigarette.” And, “No additives in our tobacco does not mean a safer cigarette.” But if you’re looking to get jittery, American Spirit will do nicely. A study showed that after two minutes of smoking unfiltered, additive-free American Spirit cigarette plasma nicotine levels were significantly higher than when study participants smoked regular cigarettes. The high nicotine levels lasted longest with the American Spirit cigarette. So yes, they are just as addictive, if not more.
American Spirit is also “fire safe,” as mandated by New York law, which means the paper has chemical rings to prevent it from lighting your couch on fire. You are breathing in that chemical. You can avoid this by rolling your own cigarettes with American Spirit tobacco, though.
Finally, your smoking American Spirit cancels most of the good you do by walking, using public transportation and riding your fixie instead of driving an SUV. When you exhale, you breathe out 7,000 chemicals into the environment, including at least 69 that cause cancer. The average cigarette emits about 14 milligrams of fine particulate matter, tiny little fragments that can lodge in your lungs and those of people around you and cause health problems. Yes, I can still smell you. And yes, you still smell crappy.
So, Should You Smoke American Spirit?
I suppose, if you have lost hope of ever quitting smoking, American Spirit is a better alternative. They don’t have the additives, which is true. And smoking domestically-grown organic tobacco means few pesticides and deforestation. If you’re disposing of your butts properly or recycling them, props. And buying from a subsidiary of R.J. Reynolds isn’t much different than buying food from an Hain Celestial, which is owned by Kraft. So I won’t judge you for that.
But before I move on, let me paint a picture for you. Like I said before, I usually can get past the cigarette air at warehouse parties. But Saturday morning, my boyfriend and I showed up at an afterhours party held in a small, squat building with the windows painted black. He was slated to play at 9:30 a.m. (not a typo), and the party had already been raging for a couple hours. When we were let inside by the bouncer, we were thrown into chaos. The front vestibule was packed with people. As the bodies closed in around me, I felt a rising panic, and tipped my head back to get some air, but only sucked in a noxious mixture of sweat and cigarette smoke. We fought our way to the back room, where we would spend the rest of the night. The room had no ventilation until around 10 a.m., when they cracked open a trap door in the roof, and only two small air conditioners laboring away like an ant trying to move a sandbox. An hour in, I started to get the jitters, and realized it was from nicotine. By the end of my boyfriend’s set at noon, I had a pounding headache that stayed all the rest of the day. He lost his voice and as of my writing this on Sunday night, still hasn’t gotten it back.
Everything about the party was awesome–the music, the people, the vibe–except for the cigarette smoke compounded by poor ventilation. I bet most of the people there don’t usually smoke inside, and definitely not in their apartment. But once one person lights up, everyone else thinks, “Fuck it,” and lights up too. And it bothers me that my love of music might cause me to get cancer someday. It seems unfair.
So I will say this: you are still sucking in and breathing out cancer-causing air pollution if you smoke American Spirit. And if you blow smoke in my face, light up on the dance floor next to me and then wave your cig around to the music, or leave your smoke lingering behind you as you walk down the sidewalk in front of me, I don’t care if it’s organic American Spirit or Marlborough Delicious Pesticide-Flavored Cancer Stick. I will still think you’re a dick.
I would prefer it if you bought an e-cig. Or, you know, quit already.
(PS. Love this little organically-minded bitchfest? Get even more sustainable living tips and top-secret info by signing up for EcoCult’s newsletter! EcoCult Everywhere each Tuesday, and EcoCult NYC on Fridays.)