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Natural American Spirit launches ‘Sky’, the brand’s first commercial organic cigarette with a charcoal filter
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  1. Jennifer Pearson1,
  2. Daniel P Giovenco2,
  3. M Jane Lewis3,4,
  4. Meghan Moran5,
  5. Ollie Ganz3,4
  1. 1 Division of Social and Behavioral Health/Health Administration and Policy, University of Nevada Reno, Reno, Nevada, USA
  2. 2 Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York, New York, USA
  3. 3 Rutgers Center for Tobacco Studies, Rutgers School of Public Health, Piscataway, New Jersey, USA
  4. 4 Department of Health Behavior, Society and Policy, Rutgers School of Public Health, Piscataway, New Jersey, USA
  5. 5 Health, Behavior & Society, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Jennifer Pearson, Division of Social and Behavioral Health/Health Administration and Policy, University of Nevada Reno, Reno, NV 89557, USA; jennipearson{at}unr.edu

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Natural American Spirit (NAS), a leading cigarette brand in the USA,1 markets its products using descriptors such as ‘organic’ and ‘tobacco & water’. Consumers believe that cigarettes with these and similar descriptors are more appealing, healthier and/or less harmful than cigarettes without these descriptors.2–11 Moreover, NAS advertising prominently features nature-related imagery, highlights the brand’s sustainable farming practices and exploits Native American symbolism, all of which may also misrepresent product risk.12–15 This combination of brand characteristics has yielded a consumer base that, compared with those who smoke other brands, is more likely to misunderstand the relative harm of NAS compared with other cigarettes.16 There is no evidence that smoking NAS cigarettes reduces disease risk, and emission studies find substantial variability in exposure to harmful constituents in NAS cigarettes depending on the NAS variety tested, the study’s methods and the compounds under investigation.17–23

Federal regulators have recognised that NAS uses deceptive marketing tactics and have taken limited regulatory action against the brand, resulting in the addition of disclaimer statements on packs and advertisements about the relative harm of ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ commercial tobacco, and the removal of ‘additive-free’ and some instances of ‘natural’ from NAS labelling and marketing.24 The US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Tobacco Products has not publicly initiated regulatory action against the use of ‘organic’, perhaps because the descriptor’s use is allowed under the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company (SFNTC) is a defendant in at least one ongoing class-action lawsuit alleging that SFNTC’s marketing and sales practices falsely convey that their products are less harmful or safer than other cigarettes.1

Despite regulatory and legal attention, NAS continues to use potentially misleading marketing and advertising tactics to position the brand as ‘different’ from other cigarette brands.25 In November 2020, NAS debuted two magazine ads introducing a new style of NAS cigarettes: ‘Sky’, a charcoal-filter cigarette made with organic tobacco (figure 1; https://bit.ly/3h9P0P2). Presented in a light blue pack, the name ‘Sky’ and the variety’s advertising featuring clear blue sky and green farmland align the brand with connotations of nature and naturalness. According to ad copy, Sky is the company’s ‘smoothest tasting and most innovative cigarette to date’, with ‘charcoal derived from coconut shells’ in the filter (figure 1; https://bit.ly/3h9P0P2). On the NAS website, Sky’s charcoal filter is described as mellowing the taste of their ‘whole-leaf tobacco, providing a smooth taste that is deliberately different’ (figure 2; www.americanspirit.com). Although SFNTC makes two other cigarette varieties with charcoal filters (Celadon and Hunter), this is the first style with both a charcoal filter and organic tobacco, and the first time NAS has prominently featured a charcoal filter in print and direct-to-consumer advertising.

Figure 1

Advertisement from November 2020 in Vanity Fair magazine for Natural American Spirit’s new variety, ‘Sky’. (Source: https://www.trinketsandtrash.org/detail.php?artifactid=15533&page=1)

Figure 2

Screen shot taken of the Natural American Spirit website on 4 April 2021 promoting the Sky launch. (Source: www.americanspirit.com)

Popularly understood as a ‘detoxifier’, charcoal has many applications in medicine and consumer products. For example, activated charcoal is commonly used in unintentional poisonings to absorb and safely eliminate toxins from the gastrointestinal tract,26 and activated charcoal water filters from brands like Brita are popular for drinking water purification. More recently, charcoal’s purifying reputation has made it a trendy addition to wellness and beauty products, although its utility in these products is dubious and generally scientifically unsupported.27 Sky’s launch showcases this detoxifying agent in the cigarette ‘filter’, a term that itself connotes purification; the tobacco industry historically used filtered cigarettes to suggest risk reduction, raising concerns about Sky’s consumer appeal.28 Although several major US tobacco companies developed and launched charcoal filter cigarettes as early as the 1960s,29 only the Japanese and South Korean cigarette markets are dominated by charcoal filter brands today.30 Studies show that, in sufficient quantities, with the appropriate cigarette design, and under the right smoking conditions, the addition of charcoal to filters could reduce exposure to harmful smoke constituents.31 32 However, it is unclear whether any hypothetical reduction in toxic emissions translates to reduced risk for smoking-related disease. Furthermore, use of charcoal filters may introduce additional threats to health associated with inhaling charcoal filter debris.33

Sky’s marketing builds on both public misconceptions that filters equate to safer cigarettes34 and the popular understanding of charcoal as a purifier, while also connecting the brand to themes of naturalness and purity and using descriptors that are demonstrably misleading. While charcoal filters could possibly reduce smokers’ exposure to harmful smoke constituents, SFNTC has not applied for a modified exposure designation with the FDA—a classification that could appropriately communicate risk reduction to consumers. In fact, based on information available to the public via the FDA website, the company has not secured an FDA marketing authorisation for Sky, which is required for all ‘new’ tobacco products introduced after 15 February 2007. It is possible that SFNTC considers Sky to be a ‘grandfathered’ product and therefore not ‘new’, as charcoal-filter NAS cigarettes existed pre-2007. This would not necessarily require an application to FDA, but the brand’s recent marketing campaigns certainly characterise Sky as a new product and raise new questions about Sky’s public health impact. For example, Sky’s advertising ‘introduces’ (figure 1) Sky with claims that it has a ‘unique filter’ (figure 2) and is ‘our smoothest tasting and most innovative cigarette to date’ (figure 2). Whether and to what extent the addition of (1) a charcoal filter to an organic cigarette, and (2) use of the name ‘Sky’ exacerbate current and potential consumers’ misunderstanding of the relative harm of this new NAS cigarette variety is a clear next research step.

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Footnotes

  • Twitter @dannygiovenco

  • Contributors JP conceived the article and lead the writing team. All authors reviewed the literature and contributed to drafts. JP is the guarantor of the article.

  • Funding JP, DPG, MJL and OG were supported by in part by NCI and FDA Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) under U54CA229973. DPG was supported by a grant from the Office of The Director at the National Institutes of Health (DP5OD023064). MM’s effort is supported by NIDA and FDA Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) (R01DA049814). OG was also supported in part by the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey under P30CA07270-5931. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of the NIH or FDA.

  • Competing interests JP is a paid expert witness for the Plaintiffs in a Multi-District Litigation invoking American Spirit Cigarettes. MM is also a paid expert witness in litigation sponsored by the Public Health Advocacy Institute against RJ Reynolds. This arrangement has been reviewed and approved by the University of Nevada, Reno and Johns Hopkins University in accordance with their conflict of interest policies.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.