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No, Natural American Spirits are not better for you, say Minnesota scientists

Natural American Spirits bank on their mostly young, educated smokers believing that "organic" somehow translates to "healthier."

Natural American Spirits bank on their mostly young, educated smokers believing that "organic" somehow translates to "healthier." Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Stop us if you’ve seen this one. There was a meme that circulated a few years ago featuring a homemade “hipster trap.” It was mostly just a bear trap lying on a concrete sidewalk, but rather than raw meat, the bait included a pair of shades, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and a bright yellow carton of Natural American Spirits.

Natural American Spirits are the cig of choice for your Whole Foods-shopping, vinyl-collecting friend. They’re marketed as “natural” and “made from organic tobacco,” the way our ancestors smoked them. But a study by University of Minnesota associate professor Irina Stepanov and graduate student Aleksandra Alcheva shows that for all their exceptional marketing, Spirits are not an exceptional cigarette.

A comparison of all 13 flavors of Spirits and several popular commercial brands found similar levels of “toxic and cancer-causing chemicals.” Organic they may be, but they’re not actually any better for you. In fact, the researchers found higher levels of nicotine in the Spirits than in other brands, so they may be more addictive.

And that’s important to know, Stepanov says, because evidence has shown that Spirits’ demographic—younger, more educated smokers— generally believe (or maybe just hope) that they’re somehow less harmful than a conventional cigarette.

“They cite this belief as the major reason they smoke this brand,” she says.

Stepanov has been studying tobacco for over 20 years. She says that until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of solid information about the actual composition of Spirits versus their competitors. Now more studies like hers are bursting bubbles.

This isn’t the first time Natural American Spirit’s marketing—and motives—have come under suspicion. It began back in 2005, when Santa Fe Natural Tobacco’s parent company, R. J. Reynolds, started dumping money into ad campaigns appealing to nature and greenwashy environmentalism, as if the cigarettes were locally sourced heirloom tomatoes.

They quickly became coveted by hipsters, with a massive spike in sales between 2009 and 2014. According to Bloomberg, Santa Fe sold some 5 billion Natural American Spirit cigarettes in 2015.

But not without some bumps along the way. By 2010, attorneys general in 33 states and the District of Columbia joined forces to make Santa Fe add a disclaimer to its packaging: “Organic tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette.” In 2017, after a class-action lawsuit, the company agreed to remove terms like “additive-free” from its packaging.

Yet the word “organic” got to stay, as did “natural.” Critics complained the new regulations didn’t accomplish much. Stepanov and Alcheva hope their work will reinvigorate awareness and prompt regulatory organizations like the FDA to crack down a little harder.

All they offer is truth,  and hope the hipsters will listen.