Why do all cigarettes look the same?
April 27, 2009 11:40 AM   Subscribe

Why is there such uniformity in the design of cigarettes in comparison to other tobacco products?
posted by roofus to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
One idea that occurs to me is that they were originally distributed in vending machines.
posted by XMLicious at 11:42 AM on April 27, 2009

Because if they looked different they wouldn't be cigarettes?
posted by electroboy at 11:45 AM on April 27, 2009

To accommodate stockists.

And I don't even understand what you mean by other tobacco products. Are you suggesting a one pouch of tobacco is that much different from another in design? Or that that's the case with cigars?
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 11:50 AM on April 27, 2009

Good question! Apart from variations in length, and filter tips, they do seem to be remarkably uniform.

Maybe it's because the chief advantages of cigarettes are being portable and easy to light. It's harder to carry cigars around without them getting bent or crushed, and there's a lot of nuisance to a pipe.

So, maybe the design is more constrained by the need to fit a packet into a shirt pocket. People who want more control or a different blend or flavour instead of portability might go for pipes or cigars instead.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:54 AM on April 27, 2009

I believe that are a lot fewer manufacturers than brands so if a company make several brands of cigarettes then they use the same packaging machinery for all of them. Also, this uniformity is common for any mass-market product - you could make the same question about breakfast cereal or canned vegetables.
posted by GuyZero at 11:54 AM on April 27, 2009

In some places they're still sold in vending machines. Haven't seen many around in the US recently, but they certainly still exist (and are pretty common) in Europe.
posted by ubersturm at 11:55 AM on April 27, 2009

There's safety in sameness; if you do anything distinctive you're more likely to be sued over it.
posted by jamjam at 12:01 PM on April 27, 2009

Best answer: The vending machine thing is related to a wider phenomenon: cigarettes represent the transformation of tobacco into a mass-produced finished consumer good, and both the machinery and process was standardised around the earliest successful model. (This Wikipedia piece on the Egyptian export business in the late 1800s is worth a read, including a glimpse into the origins of Joe Camel.)

In that kind of market, there are economic benefits in uniformity when catering to the mass market (cheaper to produce, since the components can be easily sourced or produced) and in breaking that uniformity to project "luxury" (i.e. Nat Sherman).
posted by holgate at 12:02 PM on April 27, 2009

I'm sure the length is fairly consistent because that's generally how much your body can take of smoking before it becomes unpleasant. Which is to say, there is a biological motivation for the cultural tradition of rolled tobacco to be a certain length (take the stereotypical size/representation of a joint, for example). I would be very surprised if Phillip Morris or any of the other tobacco giants haven't spent millions of dollars and done assloads of studies on the question, but the actual answer is probably a trade secret, anyway.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:15 PM on April 27, 2009

Best answer: Looking at the current market, it's also clear that regulation has some impact, given that cigarettes usually need to be stored and sold in well-defined retail space, and the packaging usually needs to carry health warnings. In short, the shelving now defines the cigarette, but the cigarette was already uniform long before the Model T.

The cigarette factory in Carmen was based around hand-rolling. Machine-rolling didn't arrive until 1880, with the Bonsack machine; since it was patented, manufacturers had to either lease machines or buy the rights to build them. (W.D. & H.O Wills acquired the UK rights.) Other patented machines were invented in due course, but generally produced the same output.
posted by holgate at 12:17 PM on April 27, 2009

Along similar lines: How come you never see Class B cigarattes?
posted by ob at 12:21 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: We humans do like our artifacts, we like things to be of standard sizes. This isn't just a consequence of mass production and replicable parts: many cathedrals in Europe have what are now mysterious-looking ovals on them which were used to define the standards for a loaf of bread. There was one circle for normal years and another for lean years. If you thought you were getting cheated, you could take your loaf over to the cathedral door, around which market was usually held, and find out.

Once mass production came along though, we started planning artifacts around each other. You can't manufacture, for example, cigarette cases if you aren't confident that your design will accommodate most cigarettes. But the same goes for things like why soda cans are 12 oz but most plastic bottles are either 750ml or 2L. It's completely arbitrary, but everyone expects things to be that size, and now we've got a significant infrastructure devoted to dispensing and holding objects that are certain dimensions. You change the size of your cigarette box or soda bottle/can and all of a sudden you won't fit in stock shelves anymore, and hey, no one's going to deal with that if they don't have to.

Long story short: because they used to be that size and there doesn't seem to be any compelling reason to change from one arbitrary size to another.
posted by valkyryn at 12:34 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

The cigarette box and the cigarette case, once central to smoking culture even if they have now effectively disappeared, likely had a lot to do with enforcing uniformity, especially in length.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 1:10 PM on April 27, 2009

I think there's a brand called English Ovals that have a, well, oval cross-section.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:46 PM on April 27, 2009

A cigarette is a very precisely calibrated nicotine delivery device. The strongest hit of nicotine is accessed in the first few puffs, and the tobacco is treated and arranged in specific order within the paper roll to deliver the ideal consumer experience.
posted by Riverine at 5:03 PM on April 27, 2009

There is (or was) English Ovals as showbiz liz said, but there have been many other shapes and sizes of cigarettes. The oddest are possibly the Russian cigs with a long cardboard tube attached -- you sort of sip the smoke from the tube. Balkan Sobranies, if they still exist, were short, fat and sold in little tins. Then there are Indian beedies. If you are rolling tobacco into a slip of paper then you are going to wind up with a tubular object (cf. joints, rolling of). I quit smoking a long time ago but when I lived in a city with a good tobacco shop I tried all kinds of different shaped cigarettes (and cigars).
posted by CCBC at 5:44 PM on April 27, 2009

I guess 100s and 120s and wides are out?
posted by gjc at 6:21 PM on April 27, 2009

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