Camel Lights remind me of my friends down on the West Coast
August 26, 2012 11:06 AM   Subscribe

Why do people choose - or stick with - the brand of cigarettes that they smoke? Is it taste, image, or habit?

I've never smoked and cigarette advertising has been banned in the UK for some years now. The recent ban on all pack branding in Australia got me thinking - how much does branding influence smokers?

Never having smoked, I don't know if there is a noticeable taste difference between brands. As a teenager, friends smoked Lambert and Butler because they were cheap (this was in the late 1990s) - the smoke gave me migraines so there was clearly something in there that isn't in, say, Marlboros. My dad smoked one brand, Senior Service, all his life; a half-American boyfriend of mine smoked Marlboros; a colleague smokes Camel Lights. Which makes me wonder why people choose the brands they did - is it because Marlboros seem very American in a way that, say, Benson and Hedges does not? Did my dad stick with Senior Service becayse he was used to smoking them, even if they were getting harder to get hold of? If the cost of cigarettes is rising thanks to tax, why aren't more people switching from, say, Marlboro to Pall Malls? And rolling your own - do people do this not just to save money, but for taste reasons, or because it might be seen as cooler than smoking branded fags?

If anyone knows of any research, or has personal experience, of what cigarette brands 'mean' to them, I'd be interested. Particularly Virginia Slims - there aren't any tobacco brands marketed particularly at women in the UK, so does it feel more feminine to smoke one of these rather than Marlboros, or did they influence you in starting?
posted by mippy to Grab Bag (61 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't smoked in years, but when I did I smoked Marlboro Lights and thought that Camel Lights tasted disgusting in comparison. So there was definitely a difference in taste, but I also only ever tried those two brands because they were the brands my friends smoked... So there's that, too.
posted by amro at 11:10 AM on August 26, 2012

In regards to rolling your own, it is generally cheaper but smoking unfiltered is really harsh, it can feel like burning all the way down. Doesn't bother some people, but for most it'd be rough to smoke those all the time.

Then of course there's the convenience and laziness factor. Same reason people get take-out food rather than cooking their own. Plus cigarettes are something you often want "right now", so you either have to take the time and effort to plan ahead and roll extra in advance or stop and roll one, which may be impractical depending on where you are, and no one really ever wants to stop and take the time.
posted by NoAccount at 11:15 AM on August 26, 2012

I smoked what tasted good to me at the time. Might have been that I shopped around through cheaper cigs for one whose taste I could like, might have been that I had smoked one from a friend that tasted good. After picking a brand, it was habit for me to buy that brand.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 11:15 AM on August 26, 2012

I'm not a smoker, but my boyfriend is, and I believe it's mostly a taste thing. He started out smoking Dunhills, an English brand that got impossible to find where he was living. He switched to Camel Filters because he found them to be closest in taste. He'll still pick up Dunhills when we see them (and gets pretty excited about it), but only buys Camel Filters. He will of course smoke other brands when he is bumming from friends or strangers.

The image factor item mentions is true, but on top of brands having certain images, rolling your own (which is also is cheaper) has some image effects: it's a little more cowboy/punk/hip (if it could possibly be all those things... I guess what I'm getting at is "tough and cool"). I had a friend in high school who rolled her own American Spirits, and it was for ultimate hipster effect.
posted by jorlyfish at 11:24 AM on August 26, 2012

Response by poster: For years, I thought rolling your own was a weed-smoking thing, but quite a few people I work with smoke rollies. I think in the past they were seen as kind of a crusty/hippie thing, perhaps?
posted by mippy at 11:30 AM on August 26, 2012

Whatever you get used to tastes right. I switched brands a few times and once acclimated anything else tasted weird. There's a period of adjustment and then what was formerly normal tastes strange. Besides the actual differences in ingredients there's differences in filters, aeration in the filters, heft of the cigarette, burn speed, all kinds of things that change your favorite poisoning experience.
The same thing happens to me with a favorite beer/coffee/soda/whatever - if I'm used to one, the others are weird.
As for what brand, I think it generally starts with whatever is around. After that it can be an attempt to be unique or to fit in or to afford it... Marketing is certainly a large factor as well, especially to the young.
posted by hypersloth at 11:30 AM on August 26, 2012

I smoke Djarum Cloves. I find regular cigarettes disgusting (tried them maybe 4 times) and they leave me with a headache.
Boyfriend smokes organic cigs with no chemical additives and says they taste better. He will smoke anything though.
posted by KogeLiz at 11:32 AM on August 26, 2012

Oh and I've noticed a lot of people actually have switched to pall mall (me included).
posted by hypersloth at 11:35 AM on August 26, 2012

I also think there's option D) whatever is available. My brother never buys his own cigarettes and will happily "borrow" yours, regardless of brand. And option E) cheapest cigarette, which is my father's favorite, particularly those "loosies" they used to sell at corner stores for a few cents per cigarette.

Another thing I've noticed: At home, predominantly black population, everyone smokes Kools or Newports. At school, predominantly white population, everyone smoked Camels or Marlboros. These are both northern American cities where stores sell many different brands.
posted by sm1tten at 11:40 AM on August 26, 2012

Definitely a taste thing, but also, you can get used to a taste if you smoke a certain brand long enough. I live in Western New York and have access to Indian cigarettes, which I started smoking because of the major price difference ($2 pack vs. $10 pack), but then got used to them to the point that I only smoked Senecas.

When I am out of state or abroad, I smoked Pall Malls even though better tasting cigarettes were available for around the same price, because Pall Malls tasted closest to Senecas. When I was in Russia, I smoked lots of super skinny Pall Malls for ladies, and really harsh ones that cost 80 cents USD/pack.

And I haven't had a cigarette in 8 weeks and this thread is killing me. :)
posted by peacrow at 11:42 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I didn't smoke that long compared to many...I'd admittedly always admired the "cool" kids in high school who sneaked smokes out in the parking lot, but other than occasionally trying one out of someone else's pack - without inhaling - back in my clubbing days (early 1980s) I wasn't a smoker. Until I started dating the man who eventually became my husband. He smoked, and to his dismay I started bumming them from him (he hated being the cause of my new "bad habit"). I eventually started buying my own, and for the four years I regularly smoked my criteria were that they must be non-menthol low-tar lights of some sort (anything else hurt my throat and made me cough) and - much to my retroactive embarrassment - they had to be *pretty*. I liked Eves because they had little flowers on them, and Misty because of the multi-colored water-color stripes. I recall one evening on our way out to dinner we stopped at a gas station to buy cigarettes, and Mr. Adams went inside to make the purchase. He returned somewhat red-faced and when I asked "What's wrong?" he replied that they were out of Eve Lights and Misty Lights and when trying to choose an alternate brand for me he was forced to ask the man behind the counter "Um, what do you have that's...pretty?" He cringed in humiliation as he repeated the conversation. PS We both quit cold turkey in December 1996 as our Christmas gift to one another.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:42 AM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

They don't all taste the same. Once you become accustomed to the taste and feel of one, that's likely to be the one you want.

I'd imagine that image plays into it, although I suspect this is more a function of what one's smoking peers smoke than what advertisements one sees on television or in magazine advertisements.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:46 AM on August 26, 2012

And this is a think that an awful lot of research has been done on. I am an occasional smoker (seriously) and I always smoke the same brand. I think a lot of people are like this in a situation where brands are associated with identity the way they are in capitalist societies. Here are a few things you might like to read...

- Marketing research survey of smoking habits and brand preferences (1956, written to try to figure out how to improve Old Gold's position among college age people)
- WHOs Tobacco Atlas - a worldwide analysis. I'd especially check the chapter on tobacco industry promotion (700k) which gives you an idea of what brands are popular where and the effects of advertising bans on smoking.
- This CDC subsite contains fact sheets includes this one on brands and this one on marketing both of which have very good bibliographies at the bottom of it.
- Here's some data on what brands teens smoke and here is a chart about the changes in preferences among young people in the late eighties.
- Here's an article from the subtance abuse and mental health services administration about consumer brand preferences in 2005

You should also poke around some in the Tobacco Archives which has the most authoritative first hand information from the companies themselves and links to toher documents.
posted by jessamyn at 11:53 AM on August 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

For years, I thought rolling your own was a weed-smoking thing, but quite a few people I work with smoke rollies. I think in the past they were seen as kind of a crusty/hippie thing, perhaps?

I think from the 80s onwards, you started to see more people rolling their own with those little papers, but for decades some very non-crusty people had various machines to help with home cigarette creation. My parents had their preferred brands -- Cameos for my Mum, and Peter Jacksons for my Dad -- but when things were tight, they rolled their own.

They used to use a machine like this for decades. It rolled one long cigarette using a paper about 15 inches long. The process was: lick paper, lay paper in device, sprinkle in tobacco, use device to roll and stick, and cut into standard lengths. These produced unfiltered cigarettes, of course, and were very harsh.

Some time in the 70s or 80s, you could buy little paper tubes that included a filter, and you had to use a machine like this to push in the tobacco.
posted by maudlin at 11:59 AM on August 26, 2012

For me it was always an issue of flavor, and never image, and as my tastes changed I would switch brands... Camel, Marlboro, Lucky Strike. Though toward the end of my smoking years I got hooked on Parliaments because once you get used to the recessed filter, normal cigarettes feel weird.
posted by rlk at 11:59 AM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh and I've noticed a lot of people actually have switched to pall mall (me included).

I did too, before I quit this last time. My decision was based on two criteria: 1) They were cheapest, and 2) They were a "real" brand and not a discount brand.

I think the brand choice in cigarettes is probably similarly varied as coffee choice, beer choice or wine choice. Flavor and individual preference has a lot to do with it, but ego and image are involved too.
posted by gjc at 12:02 PM on August 26, 2012

I used to smoke and rolled my own - it was way less harsh than shop bought cigarettes because we did use filters. And it was was cheaper. Really it was the best of both worlds, and I only ever bought cigarettes when I was out on the town - and in comparison those really used to burn my throat.
posted by stillnocturnal at 12:03 PM on August 26, 2012

Aha! Here's a better picture of the old roller my parents used, with the same brand of papers.
posted by maudlin at 12:04 PM on August 26, 2012

I smoked all kinds in high school. At that time (1990-1994) generally speaking, brand name smokes were $2.00-$2.25 and generics were as little as 99 cents. I didn't smoke a ton, so the price wasn't a big factor for me.

Roll-your-owns, Camels, and Winstons I found very harsh - they burned my throat. Marlboro Reds (or Regulars) were passable but a bit harsh. Lights of all kinds were annoying because you pull on the smoke and nothing happens (Lights have or had little holes at the base of the filter that limits suction). I wouldn't have been caught dead smoking any kind of "girly" cigarette like Slims, Capris, 100s, or anything flavored like menthols or cloves. (I'm a girl.)

Generics like GPC, Scotch Buy, Best Value (and some brand that was apparently just called Full Flavor Filter Cigarettes?) were - and I know this is going to sound strange to non-smokers - REALLY stinky. Like, way worse than other smokes. The smell was like, you couldn't even wash it off your hands. And after smoking one, your mouth tasted like the morning after a bender.

So anyway, I settled on Marlboro Mediums (the red & white package) and smoked them for years and years.
posted by peep at 12:06 PM on August 26, 2012

By the way, it is worth bearing in mind that branding really doesn't work if it's conscious. That is, people will usually swear that they prefer a particular brand because of its intrinsic properties, even if blind taste tests reveal that they prefer competing brands (Pepsi/Coke and Coke/New Coke are classic instances of this; where people's responses to blind and sighted tests were radically different. So there's really not much point in asking someone if they choose something "because of branding." If they do, they are not aware of it.
posted by yoink at 12:12 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Never smoked myself, but my mother said she smoked filtered Pall Mall Golds because of the taste.

(Since begging her to quit smoking had never worked, in a fit of trying to scare her off cigarettes I once got her a carton of an unfiltered Danish brand that I was told (by Danish smokers) was extremely strong to the point of being vile.... Mom loved them, and asked for more: said they reminded her of the Lucky Strikes she'd smoked as a teenager.)
posted by easily confused at 12:16 PM on August 26, 2012

Every working-class family in my home-town had one of those rolling machines on either the kitchen table or in front of the TV, so I dont get a hippy vibe from rolled cigarettes. It probably depends heavily by how tobacco and cigs are taxed in your area, whether it's something people do to save money.
posted by RobotHero at 12:18 PM on August 26, 2012

Brand preference is something that you set early in an experience and for some things you never really change it. Why do you use Tide? Because you saw your mom use Tide, and that's what you started with, and you didn't have a negative experience. Crest toothpaste? Because that's what you've always used, never that nasty Colgate. Bud Light beer? Because that's what you drank when you first started drinking.

I used to work for a brewery that used to be owned by a cigarette company. Most marketing went to males from age of first drink to about 25 years old. That was because we believed they were setting their brand preference between those ages, and that once set it rarely changed much. I'm sure the cigarette companies did the same thing.
posted by Houstonian at 12:20 PM on August 26, 2012

It's the same reason coffee, beer or even caffeinated soda drinkers end up prefering certain brands or styles of coffee. Your brain starts to relate the taste of the delivery system to the effect. When I drink/smoke something that tastes like this I will feel a nice feeling so it becomes sort of self reinforcing.
posted by wwax at 12:22 PM on August 26, 2012

I want to add to jessamyn's awesome links this document about the development of the branding of Virginia Slims. Also it's cliche but I think the very first scene of Mad Men does a good job at examining the loyalties of smokers' brand preferences.

(I'm not a smoker, but have only dated smokers and grew up surrounded by them. I also worked for a time at a supermarket customer service counter doling out cigs. Brands were handed out according to very clear demographic patterns--men smoking Marlboros, Luckies, or Camels; women smoking Marlboro lights or Parliament Lights slims; young hip college students smoking American Spirits; older ladies smoked Pall Mall or Parliament Full Flavored. It was a pretty fascinating experience and gave me a really deep appreciation for that damned Hefner song.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:31 PM on August 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I smoked, I started out with Marlboros because they were what my friends smoked, plus the boxes were color-coded and I could easily tell if they had my kind in stock. (I switched every so often, from lights to ultra-lights, menthol to non-menthol, 100s to regulars, etc.) After a while I switched to Camels because "Marlboro" is kinda hard to say. Sometimes I'd mumble and trip over it and the cashier would hand me Parliaments instead. That's the actual reason I switched.

I suspect that if you could buy cigarettes without asking for assistance, I would have experimented with other brands and become a fancy cigarette snob. But I'm shy and sort of awkward (dorks smoke too!) and usually wanted to complete my transaction with minimal fuss.

I've never known anyone who smoked Virginia Slims or Mistys or any of the "lady" cigarette brands. They seemed incredibly outdated and uncool and I always wondered who bought them. This was in the late 90s-00s.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:31 PM on August 26, 2012

Grandma stuck with the brand she started with, and said all the others tasted bad.

This is equally true for her coffee (Folgers), her tea (Lipton), and her cigarettes (this one I can't remember for sure, because they put really intensive effort at keeping the cigarette stuff out of my life - I think it was Marlboro, though.)

I suspect it was true about almost all of her habitual purchases (and most, if not all, of everyone else I know, including myself.) Like, I've been told that certain members of my family only buy cars that "like" Shell gasoline. And I'm pretty sure they at least sort of believe it's really true, and they don't remember that this is actually because thirty years ago, Shell had the best prices during a crucial period in their intellectual/social/emotional development.

My uncle only likes things that are unusual - my dad has this same thing. So for example, the family peanut butter is a rare peanut butter I've only ever seen at Trader Joe's, and the coffee has been bought as whole beans and ground up at home since about 1994, and they introduced me to Tofutti Cuties, and so forth. I like to think of him as a pre-Hipter Hipster. Fortunately, neither my dad nor my uncle smoke - unfortunately this means I can't share their excessively iconoclastic cigarette brand preference with you. I'm sure it would be quirky and that 95% of all cigarette smokers would be like "that's a really hard way of doing it, but OK, I guess" if you told them what it was.
posted by SMPA at 1:12 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The way I see it it's like cheap beer.

I mean, people who drink cheap beer regularly do have brand preferences. But it's not like any brand of cheap beer actually tastes actively good, like something you'd smack your lips with anticipation over.

The way it works, I think, is you accustom yourself to the flavor of one particular brand, so that you don't really notice anymore how unpleasant it is. And then the trouble with switching brands isn't that it tastes objectively worse, but that you notice the badness, because it's not the specific badness you're accustomed to.

Used to smoke for about 10 years. Switched brands every few years due to price or availability or wanting to split cartons with a boyfriend or whatever. At any given moment, the brand I was smoking tasted tolerable, and everything else was unbearably harsh. When I switched brands, after a few weeks, my sense of what was tolerable would also change.
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:21 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I smoked for years. For the last 5 years or so, I only smoked parlaiment lights. I loved the recessed filter. After smoking p-funks with a recessed filter, I couldn't go back to normal filters.

Before that, I smoked whatever was on sale or I found at a friends house. I was always happy to find a camel light, though.
posted by Elly Vortex at 2:00 PM on August 26, 2012

I smoked Parliament Lights (the recessed filter is kinda nifty for some reason), then switched to Camel Lights (due to a personal grudge against someone I know who is connected to Philip Morris), then finally settled on American Spirits, and that's where I've been for the last 5 years or so. I am really truly convinced they taste less chemical-y than other cigarettes, and don't like to bum other brands from people (unless I am drunk and/or really desperate), but it would not surprise me at all if the taste thing is all in my mind and I am just clinging to them out of some dumb notion that they are youthful/hip/vaguely alternative.
posted by naoko at 2:18 PM on August 26, 2012

A friend of mine won a lifetime supply of Harley-Davidson cigarettes. (FYI: a lifetime supply as determined by the sweepstakes rules is a carton a week for ten years, and if you smoked a Harley you'd know that's about right.)

Anyway, after the freebies were up he switched to American Spirit.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:22 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Marlboro Reds my entire (smoking...) life. I've tried, god I've tried, to switch brands. I've smoked everything and I keep coming back to the Reds.

I've a very cheap person, if I could find a cigarette that tasted like a Marlboro Red but was cheaper... I would switch in a heartbeat.

And whether it comes in a hard pack or a soft pack, matters. They taste different. If a place is out of hard packs, I will drive to the next one.

The closest I have come to the same taste, is (surprisingly) Marlboro Ultralights. When I'm done smoking, the filter is MUCH darker than my normal filter, and I'm not sure if I'm drawing harder because I'm trying to get more 'taste' or more nicotine.

So my vote goes to personal preference/taste. I didn't start with Marlboro Reds, my first cigarette was a Marlboro Light. The brand means nothing to me, it's all about taste.
posted by one4themoment at 2:37 PM on August 26, 2012

Call me crazy, call me a poseur, but cigarettes have always been about flavor for me, nothing else. After flirting with menthols and clove-cigarettes in my teens, I landed on Andron Turkish Specials in college, and never looked back. Turkish tabacco has a distinctive, ropey, earthy flavor--it's an ingredient in Camels--that you either love passionately or hate with the ferocity of a thousand suns and liken to excrement. After several years, I began buying loose-leaf turkish in the tobaccoist and rolling my own. Eventually, when I lost access to turkish, I switched to Drum loose-leaf tabacco and continued to roll my own sticks.

I've never "got" the brand thing with cigs. Marlboros, Parliaments, Kools--they all taste the same to me, with an identical generic, chemical flavor that seems devoid of any association with cured tabacco. But that's just me.

I've heard purists claim that nothing beats a cigar for capturing the essence of tobacco, just as nothing beats an espresso for capturing the essence of coffee. Kinda agree with this.
posted by Gordion Knott at 3:07 PM on August 26, 2012

In high school, it was what brands the "popular kids" where smoking, or what their parents smoked (from whom they'd "borrow" cigarettes from). Most people went through a fair amount of taste testing especially bumming a different brand than you were regularly smoking and found that it tasted better. Most people who get hooked ended up settling on a particular brand due to cost/taste/mouthfeel. There were definitely brands with different images. Benson and Hedges, iirc, was an "old persons" brand.

For some there is also a 'ruggedness' factor - smoking harsh cigarettes (ie., Black Death Cigarettes) or handrolls (which was a lot cheaper but turns your fingers orange).

Going to college in the US I started smoking Marlboro Red because that was the most commonly smuggled brand where I grew up in Canada. Got too harsh, so switched to mostly Camels and made a "thing" of trying different brands from different countries but ended up smoking American Spirits for the taste/mouthfeel since they were only like $0.25 a pack more than the cheaper cigarettes (so, ~$2).

Returning to Canada, re-started smoking Export A Green Kings, but they ended up being too harsh so I went back to DuMaurier Kings which I smoked earlier in HS. When cigarettes got super duper taxed ($8 a pack), Dunhills ended up being only $0.25 per pack more, so I started, and still smoke, those (at >$10 a pack).

I'll grab a carton of American Spirits whenever I'm in the US long enough to do so.

Cigarettes from different countries are generally quite distinctive; although darker French tobacco is similar to American while the American Spirits brand are much more 'neutral' and taste similar to English and Canadian tobacco. I've only had a few different Asian brands but cheap Chinese cigarettes taste like sawdust while expensive Chinese cigarettes taste English. Japanese and Korean cigarettes tend to be extraordinarily smooth.
posted by porpoise at 3:11 PM on August 26, 2012

I started smoking quite young, with the same brand my sister smoked(Belmont Mild). My folks offered a quit smoking program, but when it became obvious I'd rather smoke than take the financial gain, I was told that I'd have to work for it. "Tailors" (store bought) were for sissies, and he sat me down with a rolling device like above and taught me how to make my own.
The biggest difference other than price, was it stopped the majority of other kids bumming off me.
I spent some time in the UK and got hooked on John Player Special, as it was the closest to Canadian tobacco I could find.
These days I buy Export A loose tobacco, because it's what I'm used to. Doing the math I pay about $7 a pack vs $13 for tailors.
This fall my partner and I are going to switch to e-cigs and see if we can't quit...again.
posted by whowearsthepants at 3:30 PM on August 26, 2012

Response by poster: They used to use a machine like this for decades. It rolled one long cigarette using a paper about 15 inches long. The process was: lick paper, lay paper in device, sprinkle in tobacco, use device to roll and stick, and cut into standard lengths.

My colleague has one of those! It was bought for a present.

Because I never met any rollie smokers until four or five years ago, I always assumed 'cigarette papers' were sold to make spliffs with. Given how cheap it is, I wonder why most of the students I knew who smoked (admittedly not many as I ran with a theatre crowd who were either too pragmatic or too concerned about their voices) smoked readymades.
posted by mippy at 3:33 PM on August 26, 2012

Despite the fact that I only ever smoked casually, and was never even entirely addicted to cigarettes, I already had my brand loyalties in place for the brief span of time that this transpired.

Straight up, I chose American Spirits because they seemed "cool", and the cool kids at college that I wanted to be friends with smoked them. Various rationales for this brand loyalty were floated around -- American Spirits are "natural" in some nebulous fashion, they have "less additives and chemicals and stuff", etc. Bottom line, probably, is that it's all brand and marketing and niche.

At the time, I thought American Spirits smelled nice (faintly earthy and tea-like) and that they were smoother than either Marlboros or Camels, which were the two other brands most popular among my circle. Parliaments were also popular, and I was willing to smoke them if offered, but they seemed somehow less cool than American Spirits.

I never even would have CONSIDERED smoking any other random brand, like Virginia Slims or Kools or Benson & Hedges. My cigarette world consisted of Marlboros (acceptable), Parliaments (less acceptable), American Spirits (best obviously), and Camels (unacceptable for nebulous reasons actually having to do with taste/effects of smoke on throat). Period.
posted by Sara C. at 3:37 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I started smoking in high school - at that point I alternated between Camels and Marlboros, in various subconfigurations - couldn't tell you now why I picked whichever brand i started with, and I don't even remember now. It definitely wasn't about gender or seeming "American", I think I was just looking to grab something that looked familiar and get the hell out of the store before anyone saw me buying them, so I went with a brand with name recognition.

In college I switched mostly to cloves after being introduced to them by a friend, because they smelled and tasted so much better. But throughout those years there was a lot of cigarette-sharing among friends, you'd smoke whatever your friend was offering, mostly. Except that I was definitively not a fan of menthols after a couple of goes at them, and would skip a smoke rather than have a menthol.

The couple of people I've known who rolled their own circa the late 90s were very obsessed with their image and appearing as cool and alternative as possible, so for them it was absolutely a proto-hipster thing. You rolled your own smokes, preferably on top of a copy of your preferred Douglas Coupland novel, and if you'd had a fedora handy you'd damn well have been wearing it.
posted by Stacey at 3:39 PM on August 26, 2012

Response by poster: Bud Light beer? Because that's what you drank when you first started drinking.

People tend to change their beer preferences, though? I did think about it in terms of household goods and sticking with name brands - there was a survey done here a while ago that said you were more likely to get divorced than change your banking provider, or something like that - but people tend to refine their tastes (Bud drinkers switching to cocktails/real ale/wine or even other lagers like Carlsberg - same with cosmetics as well) or will economise (going from the name-brand washing powder to the own-brand, or whatever is on offer that week). From my observations the brand preference seems very fixed for cigarettes in a way it doesn't seem to be for beer or washing powder or clothing labels (do cigarette brands fall out of fashion?')

I haven't drunk soft drinks for about fifteen years or so, and I can't tell the difference between Coke Zero and Diet Coke. I always thought Coke Zero was the same product with different marketing (if the UK ads are anything to go by, CZ is for bros and DC is for fashion-conscious women) but the Coke fans at work swear they taste different. I don't think it's a duff tongue, either - I can tell you the difference between, say, organic and non-organic houmous from the same supermarket, or different brands of Earl Grey. Given that soft drinks are heavily marketed in terms of image rather than taste/value etc, it made me think about cigarettes.
posted by mippy at 3:42 PM on August 26, 2012

I've never known anyone who smoked Virginia Slims or Mistys or any of the "lady" cigarette brands. They seemed incredibly outdated and uncool and I always wondered who bought them. This was in the late 90s-00s.

When I was in high school and college around the same time, my impression was that people my age smoked those (Mistys especially) because they stole them from their mom. In college I had a girlfriend who smoked Virginia Slims. I'm not sure whether she, too, got them from her mother, or whether she just thought it was ironic/retro/cool.

My guess is that the moms smoke that type of cigarette because they're of the original "You've Come A Long Way, Baby" smoking generation, and that was what was cool when they were first developing a brand consciousness around cigarettes. I don't know that there's any practical reason to prefer them over regular cigarettes.

Does it take less time to smoke a Slim? I wonder if there's a correlation between Slim smokers and pink collar labor?
posted by Sara C. at 3:46 PM on August 26, 2012

I smoked cigarettes for years. I preferred Marlboro Red, and for me it was taste. I often bought no frills brands though, because they were cheaper. And when I was really broke, I smoked roll your own, because that was by far the cheapest way to go.
posted by Flood at 3:46 PM on August 26, 2012

When I started smoking, I smoked Marlboro Reds because my father smoked them. (He stopped when he had his double bypass.) After awhile I switched over to Marlboro Lights, then back to Reds, then Lights and now I prefer Marlboro 27s.
I also HATE soft packs. They crush cigarettes too easily, and when I worked as a (corn) Field Inspector, they would get wet easily, too. (Eventually, I learned to keep them in the company truck or in a plastic bag.)

A friend of mine used to get a certain kind of Camel cigarettes because it had pink on the box and pink foil on the inside. (She loves pink!) So the particulars of packaging can have some influence.
posted by Melee Loaf at 3:52 PM on August 26, 2012

The reason most people I know who smoke them like American Spirits is because they have only tobacco in them. If you tear open a Camel Light you will see little bits of paper mixed in with the tobacco, bits which I assume to be impregnated with nicotine. The same goes for those who like 'gourmet' cigarettes like Export A's, Shepherd's Hotel, Black Death (which aren't actually that harsh and taste delicious), Dunhills, Nat Sherman's, etc.

Marlboro, Camel, Kool, Newport, Pall Mall, etc. are your cheap bear analogs. But nicer tobacco does exist, and it does taste better (if you have experience to compare it to.)

American Spirit Perique blend (ominous black box) are delicious. Export A's are too, and I was a sucker for the 25 shorter cigarettes instead of 20 longer ones. The best cigarettes I ever had I only had once or twice and never could find them again: Wild Geese. Lovely package with shiny tessellated geese on the cover and tobacco with a distinct and delicious flavor.

I smoked Camel Lights for forever, and bitched whenever I bummed an American Spirit because by comparison to any 'cheap beer' cigarette they take fucking forever to smoke. With Big Tobacco's ethics track record in mind, I would tend to believe that faster-burning cigarettes are not an accident.

But after trying a whole pack or two of Spirits, whenever I would smoke a Camel or the like thereafter there was a distinct and somewhat alarming chemical taste that I never noticed before. So I switched, hipster-bashing be damned.

Then I quit like a year and a half ago, and I'm not sure I should spend any more time reading this discussion. Feel a bit like snacking, actually.
posted by TheRedArmy at 4:09 PM on August 26, 2012

A side-note on rolling your own, here in NZ, everyone (almost) uses filter tips made for rolling, like these.

Zig Zag blue "Long burning" papers are for rolling joints, and progressively lose their front covers as strips are torn off to make paper tubes. So I am told.

But to answer the question, for me, the taste of different brands is noticeable, and I started smoking Dunhill Red in my late teens when all my smoking friends were buying the very cheapest brands or rolling their own, and I suppose it was an expression of hedonism for me to be 'throwing money away' like that.
posted by Catch at 4:44 PM on August 26, 2012

Taste, definitely, for me.

My story's somewhat dated now, because I quit in '88. Started when I was 14, first experiments with stolen menthols, but eventually settled on filtered cigarettes like Marlboro, Winstons and Raleighs. But then I tasted Lark cigarettes, which feature a unique charcoal filter. Most other cigearettes taste nasty after you've gotten used to Larks. But for whatever reason, Liggett stopped advertising them stateside a long time ago, and they've gotten harder and harder to find -- except in Japan, which is now Lark heaven.
posted by Rash at 4:48 PM on August 26, 2012

I smoked Camel Lights for ten years. Marlboro were too...strong, tasted strange, something, I couldn't put my finger on it. Then I moved to Japan, where you can find Camels if you hunt but they aren't popular over here. Marlboro you can find everywhere in Japan. So I switched. And for a year or so I smoked Marlboro Lights.

Then something happened to my brain or something and I switched over to Marlboro Lights Menthol. Menthol! I had smoked a few years before and hated menthols. But now they felt soothing; even Marlboro Lights were getting a bit harsh for me.

So I switched to menthols. Occasionally I'd buy a pack of regular Lights, but the non-menthol just tasted strange. You smoke a few packs and you get used to the regularity of it. You know what to expect. Some other brand may taste different, so you stick with a particular one.

Anyway, I quit about three years ago so all that's behind me now. Now I just sniff wistfully whenever I smell second-hand smoke (not hard to encounter in Tokyo).
posted by zardoz at 4:53 PM on August 26, 2012

I can't tell the difference between Coke Zero and Diet Coke

I can - I hate them both in very different ways. The Diet Coke is immediate "oh, yuck, this is Diet," and the CZ is more like "ummmm.... this is weird... oh no, this is Coke Zero, now I have to spit." And then the CZ taste is in my mouth for about six hours.

Your body can be trained to be super-sensitive to practically any difference in tastes. Don't even get me started on the subtle differences among Dr Pepper, Mr. Pibb, and the various (vastly, vastly inferior) also-rans in the category.

There was a time I could identify Faygo Orange (versus Orange Slice) from across a table with my eyes closed. When it comes to taste/texture, preference is learned, but the differences are actually there (even if they are pretty slight.)
posted by SMPA at 5:45 PM on August 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had an aunt who smoked Virginia Slims. My guess was because of "style"; she was very image conscious. She's no longer around to ask for clarification.

My mum smoked More's because she liked the taste and if they went out they didn't taste like crap when re-lit. She also liked that they were thinner than regular cigarettes.

My brother-in-law smoked roll-your-owns, but didn't use the machine or filters; just twisted them up like a joint. He said it was because they were cheaper.

Friends of the family used one of those hand machines to roll their own with filters. Again, this was because they were cheaper.

All of the above have quit smoking.

I've never smoked so no personal info to add.
posted by deborah at 6:41 PM on August 26, 2012

I haven't smoked a cig in around three years, but only the smell of Parliaments bring back my cravings, especially if they are mentholated.

Marlboro reds taste like a dirt road. Maybe that's why the country folk are all about them?

There is definitely a demographic associated with each cigarette. Working at a grocery store will confirm this bias. Ever seen a man buy a pack of Virginia Slims? Black people buy Newports, and "healthy smokers" buy American Spirits. I can't say exactly who specifically buys Camels, perhaps it is all walks of life. Oh, and Parliaments are for hipsters and covert cocaine users.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:52 PM on August 26, 2012

Hand rolling tobacco definitely tastes different from the one in factory-rolled cigarettes. The difference is much greater than between brands, it's much more aromatic and has a different flavor profile. I don't know if this is a deliberate manufacturing decision or due to technical constraints in the mechanized rolling process (notably, hand-rolling tobacco has a very different cut - more like short, thick threads than square flakes) but factory-rolled cigarettes definitely have a simpler, blander flavor.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:13 PM on August 26, 2012

Some more anecdata:

My grandfather smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes, and as a kid, I loved the smell of a Lucky being lit by a Zippo lighter. Fast-forward ten years or so, he finds out I'm smoking (Camels), tries to pawn off a carton on me. They sat in a desk drawer for years, as I found them to be vile (filtered or non-filtered).

I quit smoking at the end of 2011 after about twenty years of smoking. That lasted about 3 months, after a co-worker blindsided me with a bunch of HR complaints that ended up being nothing, but was a catalyst for me smoking again. That said, I had essentially smoked Camel Filters for those 20 years, but could not bring myself to smoke them, and had to "dumb down" to Camel Lights or my wife's Parliament Lights.
posted by kuanes at 3:47 AM on August 27, 2012

Response by poster: I just looked at the link from the bottom of this page regarding black people and menthols and saw this comment:

"Or it may be that some marketing guy, for reasons we'll never know, basically just came up with the idea - "Hey, let's invent a cigarette called Kools, and target it to black people. We'll make it menthol cause, you know, that's Kool" (or some other dumb reason). They run a million ads in magazines read by black people are for Kools, put up billboards in predominantly black neighbourhoods for Kools. Assuming People respond to cigarette advertising, pretty soon lots of black peopel are smoking Kools. And so now there is a general taste among black people for methols, so competing companies put out menthol cigarettes targeted to blacks.

My understanding is that that kind of targeting is a big part of how cigarette marketing works: Viriginia Slims for women, Joe Camel for young people, etc. Some of it is pretty arbitrary- there's nothing inherently more youthful about the cigarettes that come in a pack of camels than other cigarettes, it's just how they sell them. The cigarettes in a Marlboro pack are not notably manly, but that is the image the chose to associate with those cigarettes for a long time."

So in countries where cigarette advertising is banned, how do brands get these associations? I'm not aware of any preponderance toward menthols of black people here, and as I said above, there aren't 'women's cigarettes' or 'organic' brands like American Spirits here. (I have seen ads for Slims in US women's magazines, and coupons for American Spirit in Bust, which presumably has a higher number of readers which care about matters organic.)
posted by mippy at 4:35 AM on August 27, 2012

When I started smoking as a teenager, I chose my brand - Winfield Gold (although they were known as Winfield Super-Mild at the time) - based mainly on peer-influence and the "image" the brand portrayed, but taste was also a major influence. Half my smoking friends smoked Peter Jackson, about 1/3rd smoked Winfield, and the others smoked various others. I tried them all, decided I liked the Winfield taste the most, and narrowed it down to the Gold/super-mild when I realised the stronger ones were giving me headaches, and the weaker ones tasted like sucking air.

Perhaps a more interesting point is the brands I smoke when I travel when I'm overseas now that I'm all grown up and couldn't care less about image, and just want my nicotine fix in the most palatable method I can handle. In Asia, I smoke Marlboro Light/Gold. In the States, I smoked Lucky Strike. In both of those situations, the choice has purely been based on what tasted best to me of what I had tried from what was available.
posted by Diag at 4:48 AM on August 27, 2012

Rollies are super popular amongst uni students and young adults in Australia (I hardly saw anyone who bought packs). They all said it was for the money.
posted by divabat at 8:35 AM on August 27, 2012

I can - I hate them both in very different ways. The Diet Coke is immediate "oh, yuck, this is Diet," and the CZ is more like "ummmm.... this is weird... oh no, this is Coke Zero, now I have to spit." And then the CZ taste is in my mouth for about six hours.

You know, this may very well be true (and it is certainly true that Coke, Diet Coke and Coke Zero have different flavor formulas). But if there is one thing we have learned from all the various double-blind tests that have been done in all aspects of research into taste (wine, food, music etc.) it is that people do not actually know what they like. Take a bunch of well-made modern violins and toss in a Stradivarius. Play the instruments to a bunch of very highly trained, expert musicians. Let them know which instrument is the Stradivarius and sure as eggs is eggs they will tell you that the Strad is the clearly superior instrument. Repeat the test blinded, and the Strad falls back to the middle of the pack. It's not that there's no difference; it's that there is a difference and people actually prefer the best modern violins. But as soon as they know which "brand" they're hearing, they revise their opinions about which of the different sounds they prefer: Stradivarius has the branding edge, so "whatever the Strad sounds like" becomes the obvious "best" sound.

Or, famously, put the exact same wine in two bottles: a "cheap" bottle and an "expensive" bottle then serve it to even the most exacting oenophiles. Not only will they rate it radically differently, if you put them in an MRI the "expensive" version will light up all kinds of areas associated with pleasurable sensations that the "cheap" version will leave unlit.

When Coke brought in New Coke it did so not on some crazy whim or (as the conspiracy theorists will have it, either as a deliberate marketing ploy designed to fail or to hide the fact that they were changing over from sugar to HFCS); they did it because Pepsi was beginning to trounce them in the Cola wars because people preferred the taste of Pepsi to the taste of Coke. So they rejigged their recipe. Then they did a billion and one testing panels to make sure that they were picking a recipe that people liked. Sure enough, New Coke was vastly preferred in blind tests. This was a hugely robust finding. All over the country when people were given Coke and New Coke side by side to comparison test, they overwhelmingly declared New Coke to be preferable. Then they actually released the product to the market--and it was a complete disaster. People didn't like the idea of messing with a beloved and iconic product. Everyone declared New Coke to be "horrible" and demanded that Coke return to the "original" recipe (which, of course, Coke had altered in various ways numerous times over the years, but those changes had never been publicly announced before, so no one had ever cared about those). Coke, looking at disastrous sales figures, quickly retreated from New Coke (although Diet Coke is actually the same flavor formula as New Coke) and released "Classic Coke." Everyone felt so extra-bonded to the Coca Cola brand by this "people's revolution" against faceless marketing execs that sales of Coke went through the roof and Coke have never really looked back. But the fact remains that the product that everyone was desperately protecting; the product they demanded to returned to the market and that they bought in renewed quantities when it did return, is not, in fact, the product they really like. Overwhelmingly, they actually prefer the taste of New Coke: just not when they know it is New Coke that they're drinking.

This, of course, is one of those things that we're all happy to believe about other people--but which we can never believe applies to ourselves. We know what we like, dammit, and branding and suchlike nonsense has no effect on us.
posted by yoink at 9:16 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Very former long-term heavy smoker here - finally, I'm an expert).

There are real aesthetic differences. When I was a poor college smoker I pretty much tried everything in terms of smoking cheap. Name brand cigarettes taste nominally better (cigarettes are filthy and kill your sense of taste but even in this degrade context I believe the differences were not just psychological - though it's tough to say for sure I guess). The cheapest generic cigarettes definitely were harsher (more sore/scratchy throat and coughing, though I'm sure they were no more or less unhealthy), and they smoked less evenly (I suspect more crude chunks of stems, filler, less pure leaf tobacco). True premium cigs like Nat Shermans are unquestionably aesthetically superior. The tobacco in some roll-your-own brands like Drum is superior.

For quite a long time I used one of these gadgets that stuffs pre-formed filter tubes with bulk loose tobacco (far and away the cheapest method) and beyond the making hassle their inconsistency - pockets of loose tobacco that would fall out half-burnt, uneven smoking) turned me off them. If they'd smoked as well as manufactured cigarettes I think I'd have put up with spending half an hour in front of the TV stuffing the tubes.

Likewise unfiltered roll-your-own pouch tobacco had problems for me - constantly picking shreds off tobacco off your tongue, excessive nicotine staining of the fingers. Bits of loose tobacco from rolling all over everything. Pragmatically too though at a pack to a pack and a half a day it gets tedious. You already spend something like 2.5 hours a day smoking, even adding another couple minutes to the process bumps it up another hour. Manufactured packs are the easiest.

Among commercial level manufactured brands the only real difference I noticed was in American Spirits - because they are untreated with additives to burn more spontaneously and evenly they smoked more slowly (as a hardcore nicotine addict this was not a benefit), sometimes less evenly (if they got an uneven burn going they don't "correct" themselves). Otherwise, I preferred full strength because I was an addict.

I don't think brand really matters much except as a sort of pure-marketing, brand-identity phenomenon. At various times I smoke Marlboro, Camel and Winston. I had some BS sense of identity with all of them. I think the smoking habit has a lot of weird self-identity baggage (did for me anyway) and having your "own" brand is part of it. I think if someone had slipped half a dozen of any similar-strength/tar, name brand cigarette into one of my packs I would have smoked away without noticing it. The overarching reality before which brand was a tiny side issue was being massively addicted to a stimulant and in a pinch I would smoke pretty much anything, including (if it came to it) a semi-crushed butt with lipstick on it from a public ashtray. (Shudder).
posted by nanojath at 9:23 AM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Smoker from late teens into early 30s. Nicotine free for the last few years.

I started smoking what my friends smoked (Mainly Newports, although there were hold outs with some Marlboro Reds) This was at a mostly white school.

I smoked Lucky Strikes for a while in HS, as it prevented you getting a quarter packed mooched after school. Nasty though.

Parents smoked Kools. They were lower middle class/middle class at the time. One aspect of the marketing that I think got them was the buy one pack get one free or the buy 4 for the price of 3. Buy 2 packs get a free tshirt. That kind of marketing. It seemed like if one of the two local mom and pop stores didn't have that deal, one of the grocery stores or gas stations did.

I switched to Marlboro Menthol Lights around the time I started working at 7-11 (17/18). Newports were nasty harsh, and I was hacking up a lung. I wanted something menthol, and light so that's what happened. I switched to 100s when I had a job that gave you a two cigarette break. Didn't matter how long it lasted, two smokes. That's what I smoked until I quit.
posted by PlutoniumX at 11:43 AM on August 27, 2012

people do not actually know what they like

I will say I have no idea how much my aesthetic perceptions were "gamed" by advertising, branding and such or whether given a series of blind tests I would really think Nat Shermans were superior or whatever. Certainly my subjective aesthetic perceptions may have been a placebo effect.
posted by nanojath at 11:54 AM on August 27, 2012

I grew up in Holland. Hand-rolling tobacco ("shag") was, and is, very popular. I think mostly because it was the cheapest smoke you could get, but to me it always tasted more flavorful as well, compared to the distinct chemical "afterburn" of "factory cigarettes." It never took me more than a few seconds to twist one up, so time wasn't a factor, and neither was coolness a factor, since lots of other people smoked rollups as well. I had friends who were able to roll a cigarette with one hand whilst riding a bicycle!

I switched to Marlboro Mediums for a while after moving to America, because decent hand rolling tobacco was hard to get by in the 90s (Tops is vile!) Switched back to rollies when I was able to reliably locate the places that stocked Samson tobacco, alternating with American Spirits when I couldn't find any Samson. It used to be that people would raise an eyebrow when they saw you rolling a cigarette out in the street but it seems that it's become more mainstream as of late.

To me it was always about the flavor. Good quality hand rolling tobacco smells delicious -- especially when it's not lit.

I've been vaping ("smoking" electronic cigarettes) since December, and I'm loving it. If anything, vaping is even more about the flavor than anything else, since you can't really "flash" a bottle of e-juice as a fashion statement.
posted by monospace at 12:25 PM on August 27, 2012

This post brings back memories.

I was something of a cigarette conoisseur, as much as you can be one, in my younger days. This was especially fun because I started smoking regularly right around the time when I also studied abroad in Japan, where there were many different kinds of brands available.

There definitely are SOME brands where I can pick out a significant taste difference. Gitanes and Cohiba cigarettes are definitely harsher and stronger than most commercially available brands. I smoked Sobranie Black Russians for a while just because they looked cool, even though they were a lot more expensive then everything else and they made my throat itchy. I tried American Spirits and just never liked them, for whatever that's worth...maybe I was too used to all of the preservatives and additives in other cigarettes. I used to keep a cigarette case with two or three different brands inside, and pick out what I wanted to smoke depending on how I felt at the moment.

My favorite brand was the Von Eicken Springwater cigarette. They were apparently made with pipe tobacco and also slightly vanilla scented. They were smooth and delicate, but still had the full nicotine high afterwards. They pretty much stopped selling them in the US, if they were more widely available I probably would have kept smoking longer than I did.

Towards the end of my regular smoking habit, I smoked Dunhill Lights and I couldn't really tell you why. I liked the Dunhill full-flavoreds well enough and they are widely available no matter where you go, I suppose. Speaking honestly though, I doubt I'd be able to tell you difference between say a Dunhill Light, a Marlboro Light, or pretty much any other widely available commercial cigarette.
posted by C^3 at 2:31 AM on August 28, 2012

Oh my god, the Springwaters! I had forgotten all about those until reading this post, C^3. I LOVED those things and hoarded them like crazy, I had to *really* like you to let you bum one of my Springwaters.
posted by Stacey at 12:37 PM on August 30, 2012

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