Pure Poison


Natural American Spirit has just introduced the world’s first organic cigarette, which should come as a relief to anyone who’s looking to purify their favorite carcinogen. To be fair, the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, American Spirit’s manufacturer, is perfectly up-front about the fact that neither the organic product it released last month nor the nonorganic “all natural” tobacco it sells offers any health advantage over mainstream brands. “No additives in our tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette,” says the federally mandated warning on the pack and in ads in magazines and newspapers (like this one). Any remaining fogginess should be cleared up by the other government-mandated label: “Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.”

Despite such frankness, though, Natural American Spirit’s earthy, guilt-assuaging aura is penetrating the market of conflicted hipsters. The product logo—a smoking, head-dressed Native American—is meant to reflect the idea that “tobacco is a powerful herb worthy of the respect accorded it in Native American tradition,” as the Santa Fe Web site describes it. The company, by the way, is not Native American-owned, though a spokesperson says that the workforce “includes Native Americans.”

For some, such cultural appropriations have turned a little smoke into a social statement. “Natural American Spirits are good, cool and awesome tasting,” writes CR from California in the testimonial section of the American Spirit Web site, (note, you have to say you’re at least 21 to enter the site). LW from Texas offers, “I love your products as an alternative to big tobacco.” While BD from NY writes, “I feel closer to the land for smoking them.”

Time to get out of NY, BD! Or maybe it’s time to reflect on the meaning of the word natural, which has been brought to new heights of absurdity with “natural” cigarettes. Consider: Poison ivy is natural. Hemlock is natural. Cancer is natural.

Nevertheless, natural sells, especially when the product is saddled with health guilt. “People have become more concerned about what they put in their bodies,” writes Santa Fe’s spokesperson Robin Sommers, by way of explaining why the company introduced its new, organic model. (Despite having sent out a press release about the new cigs, Sommers insisted on written correspondence instead of a telephone interview.)

You might think this concern about what people put in their bodies, this fear of nasty additives, would have something to do with the idea that additives are dangerous. But in the case of cigarettes (or the tin—Santa Fe also sells loose organic tobacco), it’s the product itself, not the additives, that’s the problem. Healthwise, focusing on the impurities in tobacco is a little like worrying about the wind damage from an atomic explosion.

All of which is not to doubt the organic credentials of the new smoke. Santa Fe’s organic tobacco (which represents about 5 percent of all the tobacco the company sells) is grown according to certified organic standards, which means that the farming involves no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. There is little question that organic farming can benefit the earth. Rotating crops between fields ultimately improves soil fertility. And keeping chemicals out of the process protects wildlife, water, and soil.

There is even reason to believe that organic production may offer some sort of health benefit. Proponents of the organic approach often point to the high rates of illness among farmworkers who are directly exposed to the chemicals involved in industrial farming. And, as nutritionist and Columbia professor Joan Gussow points out, if chemical pesticides and herbicides weren’t dangerous, the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency wouldn’t set limits as to how much of the chemicals is safe. “It’s clear they’re dangerous,” says Gussow. “The question is how dangerous.”

Nevertheless, in part because scientists can no longer find a “control” population that hasn’t been exposed to the chemicals used in standard farming, it’s impossible to measure the true harm posed by them. According to Gussow, the strongest argument for organic agriculture is the long-term preservation of the planet. Healthwise, she says, the dangers of the nonorganic approach “can’t be quantified.”

Not so with smoking, of course. According to one 1999 study, each cigarette cuts an average of 11 minutes off the life of a male smoker. The same study estimated that smokers die six and a half years earlier than nonsmokers. But all is not cut-and-dried, even in the land of languishing lungs. Some researchers think smokers die as much as 16 years earlier. Naturally.