A few years ago, U.S. tobacco farms were considered a dying breed. With the number of American smokers on a steep decline, federal subsidies on their way out, and public smoking areas getting sealed off like a crime scene, this came as little surprise. The total number of U.S. acres under production for tobacco shrank from more than one million in 1974 to 297,000 in 2005. Then in 2006, in a strange turn of events, U.S. tobacco leaf production increased substantially: 21 percent higher than the 2005 harvest, which had been the worst in over a century. One explanation for this turnaround may be the skyrocketing demand for organic tobacco.

According to the Southeast Farm Press, organic tobacco is “the biggest growth area in U.S. tobacco production.” The stuff fetches about twice the price as regular tobacco on the open market. “Any tobacco without pesticide residues is more attractive than conventional in the current market,” said organic tobacco producer Micou Browne.

Browne's company, Organic Smoke Inc., bought twice as much leaf in the past year. But that won’t be even half as much as what the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., makers of the additive-free Natural American Spirit brand cigarettes, grew. Already the largest organic tobacco product manufacturer, Santa Fe continues to see its sales grow by more than 10 percent each year.

For centuries tobacco was a guaranteed cash crop in Southern states that produced it; how it was grown didn't matter. With U.S. demand falling and grain crops, fed by the growth of biofuels like ethanol, garnering equal dollar, the only way to make tobacco competitive again is to go organic. And that's only possible because of growing demand among eco-conscious smokers willing to pay premium price for what is perceived to be a superior product.

Santa Fe Spokesman Mark Smith says his company's recent success has just as much to do with the company’s philosophy and values as it does good farming practices. Sante Fe prides itself on being “earth friendly” and “socially progressive.” The company powers its facilities' electrical needs with renewables; "adopted" a portion of, and donated $150,000, to restore the Santa Fe River in New Mexico's capital city; and extends its benefits package to gay and lesbian domestic partnerships.

But what many smokers of American Spirits may not know, despite the company's professed dedication to operating “in as transparent a manner as possible,” is that the company that makes their cigarettes is owned by the Reynolds American Inc., the second-largest US tobacco company and maker of popular brands such as Camel, Winston, and Salem. The CEO (at the time) of RJ Reynolds, the company that would evolve into Reynolds American, was among the tobacco executives who famously told Congress in 1994 they didn't believe nicotine was addictive.

The mass consumption of cigarettes, which is increasing globally by slightly more than one percent a year, can only be met through the exhaustion of natural resources, environments, and labor. Big companies like Reynolds American, which owns RJR and is itself 42 percent owned by British American Tobacco and manufactures about one of every three cigarettes sold in the US, tend to buy cheap leaf from developing countries where farm practices are lax and tobacco-control efforts are more easily suppressed.

In fact, by 2010 a projected 87 percent of tobacco will be grown in developing countries like South Korea, where more than 40 percent of annual deforestation is due to the production and curing of tobacco; Brazil, where pesticide sprayings have polluted fresh water; and Malawi, which has the highest incidence of child labor in Southern Africa (tobacco farms in Malawi that have a contract with multinationals, about 20 percent of the total, have a ban on child labor).

“It’s a much different operation,” Smith said, referring to Santa Fe's parent company, which controls 30 percent of the U.S. market as compared to Santa Fe's 0.6 percent. Santa Fe's organic brand is certified by the USDA (though other certification programs are stricter), and the company will soon be the only cigarette maker to be certified under the International Organization for Standardization for its environmental practices. This global federation of national standards-setting bodies oversees a voluntary set of guidelines often derided by environmentalists as being designed by industry for industry. Of their parent company, Smith says, “They’re a major producer. To keep the cost structure there are some things they can’t do. But we talk to their folks about how we do things and there is a lot of good rub-off from that.”

Last November, RJR announced that it would immediately stop advertising all its brands in newspapers and consumer magazines. Because it is an independent subsidiary, however, Santa Fe continues to advertise in liberal publications such as Mother Jones and The Nation. Santa Fe also markets other RJR brands, too; whether they'll go on exploiting this self-created loophole they're not saying.

“In some ways, somebody might say, 'You guys are like the Ben & Jerry’s of the tobacco industry,' and I guess in some ways we are,” Smith said. “The smoker of a Marlboro or a Camel probably doesn’t know the name of the company that produces it. They don’t know if it’s Philip Morris or RJ Reynolds. Our consumers know who makes the product.”

In 1997 other tobacco companies were beginning to notice Santa Fe. Brown & Williamson, another tobacco company, commissioned a market-research study of competing brands, including American Spirit, to “gain an understanding of niche brands and the people who smoke them.” The report found that smokers were drawn to the brand in part because it came from “a smaller company” that “cares more about its customers.”

But in 2002, after nearly a decade of being independently owned, Reynolds American bought Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. Yet nowhere on the current packaging or advertisements is the bigger company even mentioned.

“I don’t think [such labeling] is needed,” Smith said. “We’re owned by Reynolds American, but we’re independent. We make our own decisions. I think if you were to do any kind of research you’d see that we were owned by a bigger company.”

The decision to remain identifiably separate from Reynolds may have been informed by the 1997 market research. American Spirit customers were characterized 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 in Greenwich Village at a non-trendy bar” or “have friends over for dinner and drink microbrews.”

This comically specific description shows that Reynolds is aware of the delicate ground it must tread when seeking to attract socially and environmentally conscious smokers: These are people who do not want to participate in typical consumer culture, let alone its destructive consequences.

In 2000, the FTC ordered Santa Fe to disclose on all relevant packaging that “No additives in our tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette.” (Smith says he can't “emphaszie enough” that there is no such thing as a safer cigarette.) Even so, the inclusion of “natural” in the brand name, the depiction of a Native American on its logo, and the emerging use of organic practices all foster the notion that cigarettes have a place in a healthy and sustainable society.

“Some smokers have that perception,” said Patricia McDaniel, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California’s Center for Tobacco Control Research & Education. “But the only way that might be true is if we actually smoked tobacco once a year in a ceremony [like the Native Americans] instead of in cigarette form.”

In a paper McDaniel had published last year on smokers’ perceptions of “natural” cigarettes, she concluded that “tobacco companies may be inclined to introduce natural brands as part of their burgeoning corporate social responsibility efforts” and that “such efforts may involve expanding the current concept of natural cigarettes, with their emphasis on no additives, into 'green' cigarettes—organic (pesticide-free), completely biodegradable, or manufactured using renewable energy.” Indeed, market research shows that informing smokers of the chemical contents of most cigarettes results in shock and alarm, and also suggests that, for many smokers, this alarm can be allayed by a “natural” cigarette. In Germany, ads for “organic” cigarettes have been banned because regulators there decided they mislead consumers into thinking they're a healthier product.

Like a subliminal message, the soothing words of the environmental movement have become powerful enough to override the proven negative health effects of cigarettes and the government-mandated warning label. There's some sense of trust and reassurement hearing a company say, as Santa Fe does on its website, “Supporting sustainable agriculture is part of our commitment to reducing our footprint on the Earth, and protecting our natural resources.” But McDaniel points to a “need to expand our definition of sustainable. It’s all well and good to grow something organically and use renewable energy sources, but if it kills half the people who use it then it’s not very sustainable.”

Story by Bryan Farrell. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

The green cigarette?
How one U.S. tobacco company is trying to make users forget that its product can kill them.