Trendy smokes a big hit with hip Thinking young: 'Microsmokes' light a fire under the stodgy cigarette industry. But critics question marketing's motives.

January 11, 1996|By Dennis Romero | Dennis Romero,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The Aztecs might turn in their tombs if they found out their sacred smokes have become the focus of fickle marketing campaigns, calculating packaging and fashion-conscious puffing.

Ironically, it's a back-to-roots cigarette, American Spirit, that kicked off a new generation of tobacco -- "microsmokes." American Spirit, a small brand with a distinct taste, pays homage to the first cigarettes by using only natural ingredients.

"I heard through word-of-mouth that American Spirit were additive-free," says actress Elizabeth Rainey, 27. "That intrigued me."

Indeed. But we all know how things go. As soon as a "product" becomes halfway successful, especially with a buzz market of younger smokers, along come the bigwigs, boasting back-to-basics products of their own. So along with microsmokes such as American Spirit, Buz, Gunsmoke and Magic Herbal, we have the new Moonlight Tobacco line from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Dave's from Philip Morris U.S.A.

Microsmokes, which often cost more than mainstream brands (typically 25 cents to 50 cents more per pack), aren't the only alternative cigarettes gaining the hearts and lungs (literally, say smoking critics) of the young. Designer and foreign smokes -- Dunhill, Cartier, Galoises, Gitanes, Peter Stuyvesant, Export A, clove cigarettes and beedies from India -- are also proving more popular.

Critics contend micro- smokes are clearly aimed at younger smokers -- from the hip packaging to the test marketing, which is often conducted in Seattle, a hotbed of youth culture. Scott Ballin, spokesman for the American Heart Association, says this marketing includes "youthful, creative, stylish campaigns that can tap into the young adult market."

R.J. Reynolds spokesman Frank Lester counters: "We market all of our products to the 21-plus segment."

The microsmokes phenomenon, which makes up less than 1 percent of the $47 billion U.S. cigarette market, is sometimes compared to the small but growing microbrewery beer market. As with beer, where mass-production breweries have put out beers made to look like they come from small-town Oregon, mass-production cigarette companies have, with these new products, put out their own faux microsmokes, sometimes with humorous reactions.

Ms. Rainey and other young smokers say they won't be duped by the deceitful smokes. "It seems like a joke -- like Red Dog beer," she says, referring to a faux microbrew produced by Miller Brewing Co., which is owned by none other than Philip Morris Companies.

Beedies, on the other hand, are far from being a product of corporate America. The leaf-wrapped tobacco smokes are often smuggled into the United States from India. They are popular enough that both U.S. Customs and the state of California have investigations under way aimed at catching illegal importers.

Then there's Buz, a micro- smoke launched this month. It doesn't promise a buzz, but it does provide an unusual taste. "Basically the Buz name comes from a product that honeybees make, propylus," says John Gallahan, chief operating officer of Star Tobacco Co. of Petersburg, Va., which owns Buz. "Buz contains 100 percent natural tobacco, so we have the same strategy that American Spirit has."

Sales of American Spirit, says owner Santa Fe Tobacco Co., have consistently grown since its launch 10 years ago. Santa Fe president Robin Sommers has called American Spirit tobacco "pure, unadulterated leaves, grown in the good earth, emblematic of rites as old as the Indians themselves."

Philip Morris is tapping into the microsmoke trend with Dave's, a cigarette line the company began test marketing in Denver, Seattle and Portland last fall. The smokes stand apart, the company says, mostly in terms of packaging and marketing. They do not boast of all natural ingredients. Packs contain an insert that tells the "tale of a fictional underdog, Dave, who creates his own tobacco company," says a representative.

R.J. Reynolds' entry into the market came last summer in the form of six brands of cigarettes -- Sedona, Jumbo, Politix, Metro Lights, City and B -- marketed in New York, Chicago and Seattle under the Moonlight Tobacco Co. label. Again, the main difference between these and other mass-market cigarettes, a representative says, is the packaging and marketing.

The tobacco industry has for several years been searching for new markets to bolster sales. The specter of anti-smoking activism and looming legislation (to ban cigarettes from being sold in vending machines, for example) has the industry against the ropes. One new target has been exports. But new, younger smokers are also a must, analysts say.

Statistics show that eight out of 10 smokers start by age 18. Last year, in fact, smoking increased among high schoolers, with more than six out of 10 reporting they have smoked a cigarette, almost twice the number of teen smokers in 1993, according to a University of Michigan study. What's more, the biggest influence drawing kids to cigs is you guessed it, marketing, according to a study last fall (a study the industry challenges).

But despite the attraction to smoking among the young, there is little evidence that any of these brands, with the exception of veteran American Spirit, are burning up the mainstream competition.

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