Hipster PSA: American Spirit 'natural' cigarettes get hit with fraud lawsuit
Natural American Spirit’s marketing scheme is the image of irony: an all-natural, health-conscious consumer puffing on an organic cancer stick. For years, the Natural American Spirits have been touted as the “additive-free” and “organic” cigarette of choice.
Their marketing campaign boasts that their cigarettes contain only tobacco leaf and leave out all the chemicals common in conventional brands, and implies a kinship with Mother earth that may double as a peace offering to the cancer gods.
Smokers believe this bullshit to the extent that last year, Natural American Spirit sold over 5 billion cigarettes. Now 69 individuals across 12 states are pursuing a class-action lawsuit against the owners of Natural American Spirit for false and misleading advertisement.
Natural American Spirit cigarettes have been a cornerstone of hipster culture. They’re a godsend for those who worship all things healthy and organic and natural and overpriced, like shopping at the farmer’s market or buying locally-made artisan jewelry. In the eyes of progressive flower children, American Spirit is a vegan alternative to your traditional cigarette, which contains additives made from animal products. To pander to their hip consumer base, American Spirit used to set up air conditioned tents at Coachella to hand out free packs of their cigarettes (at least until they got banned for doing so).
Recently, a New York artist mocked their popularity among his peers by setting up “Hipster traps” throughout the streets of Brooklyn, where a pack of American Spirits, a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and a pair of neon sunglasses are clustered together inside a bear trap.
In 1997, American Spirit conducted a marketing report that characterized its customers as artists or activists, who drove “sensible/functional” cars like VW Jettas, read “hippie and intelligent/successful” magazines like The New Yorker or The Atlantic, and were likely to “hang out at a non-trendy bar” or “have friends over for dinner and drink microbrews.” With these findings, Natural American Spirit could cater their marketing approach to appeal to this trendy, eco-conscious subculture. They provided their cigarettes at local smoke shops in hip college towns such as Austin, TX and Boulder, CO. They sold them at natural food stores and a small upstart grocery chain called Whole Foods. And the hipsters just gobbled up what the corporation fed them.
Such behavior is shameful for a social circle that aims to defy the typical consumer culture. What's worse, the beloved indie brand is on the fast track to becoming one of the world’s biggest tobacco conglomerates. R.J. Reynolds, owner of Camel, Winston, Salem, and Pall Mall, bought the company in 2002 for $340 million. Unaware that the indie brand was now a member of Big Tobacco, consumers continued buying, and American Spirit profits rose around 50 percent annually in the decade after 2005. British American Tobacco has now offered $47 billion to take over Reynolds, and if the deal goes through, the owner of American Spirits will be the second-largest tobacco company in the world.
A huge component of American Spirit’s success is the misconception that the absence of chemical additives makes its cigarettes healthier. And it’s true that the industry once turned to additives such as ammonia and urea to speed up the delivery of nicotine to the brain and foster addiction. But the scientific community agrees that it’s the poison in the smoke that kills. After all, smoking has been causing cancers and other diseases since the early 1900s, long before the industry began using additives. Natural American Spirit smokers pay nearly double for their “organic” tobacco, but get no more health benefits for the premium price.
“Organic” is the magic word for Natural American Spirit. It’s precisely how the company takes the noxious character of cigarettes—their extreme addictiveness and their poisonous effects – and covers it with a veil of implied healthiness.
Alex Watkins, an American Spirit supplier of PRC (purity-residue clean) tobacco for nearly 20 years, told Bloomberg, “People just like that word. And they feel so much safer smoking. I mean, look, you’re still sucking smoke in your lungs. Is it good for you? Hell no. But you ain’t gonna stop people from smoking. They enjoy it. But I guess they got a sense of feeling that it’s supposed to be better for you. Because, you know, it don’t have any chemicals. Whatever eases your mind, I guess.”
The lawsuit against Natural American Spirit’s misleading marketing campaign has a solid foundation. First of all, there’s precedent. In the case of Engle v. Liggett in 2000, a Florida jury awarded a class of smokers $145 billion in punitive damages for injuries resulting from cigarette addiction. Since then, multimillion-dollar jury verdicts against tobacco companies have been gaining steam and making periodic headlines.
What’s worse, Natural American Spirits has done nothing in response to a warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stating that the advertising phrases “natural” and “additive-free” constituted false marketing of a “modified risk product,” which is a violation of federal law. It’s been a year since American Spirits received notice of their federal offense, and no visible change has been made in how the cigarettes are marketed.
Natural American Spirit cigarettes have bright, colorful packaging reminiscent of a box of crayons. They have Hollywood’s It Girls, Chloe Sevigny, Alexa Chung, Kate Hudson, and Kirstin Dunst, clutching them in their manicured hands. They have a marketing scheme that promotes an eco-friendly farm to lung process. And for hipsters, they’re the trendiest deadly habit you can find.