You would think that people who care deeply about the environment and eat organic food wouldn’t smoke. But that’s not always the case.
In fact, environmentalist smokers have a bit of an out, a brand that let’s them continue their vice while still feeling wholesome. Yes, I’ve noticed that people who live in Brooklyn and who like the idea of buying organic, locally-made artisan food, choose American Spirit cigarettes.
This confused me, so I decided to do some investigating. Are they actually healthier for you? Are they healthier for the environment? Are they less addictive. Let’s find out.
Health Nuts Love American Spirits
It’s not just people I know in the sustainable scene that smoke American Spirits, which come packaged in colors reminiscent of a kid-friendly dime store from the 50s, with an American 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 husband used to get American Spirit direct mail once or twice a year to his apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
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. Heartwarming.
Of course, that was back in the 90s, but it still holds true. A vegan blogger wrote, “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 American 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.
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 rat poison 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.”
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 more with West Virginia than San Francisco.
There’s also the problem of cigarette butts. They look compostable, but all of them have non-biodegradeable acetate filters inside, which get washed out to sea where marine life eats and chokes on them. They can also end up in the mouths of babies who are crawling around on the playground or front yard. 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, but that doesn’t address the non-biodegradable filter aspect.
Finally, you’re 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 you do smell stronger than the municipal bus rolling by. Much stronger.
So, Should You Smoke American Spirit?
If you have lost hope of ever quitting smoking, American Spirit is a better alternative. They don’t have the additives, 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 I must say this: Cigarettes are really unpleasant to everyone except the person who is smoking. It’s sort of like those guys who walk down the street playing music from their iPhone at full blast, but if that music could give you cancer. 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, burn me, 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 Marlboro Delicious Pesticide-Flavored Cancer Stick.
It’s still gross.