Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that organic tobacco production is booming in the U.S.? And are cigarettes made from organic tobacco any healthier for smokers?
— Nanci R., Petaluma, CA
To say business is booming would be an exaggeration, but it is true that many American tobacco farmers are beginning to transition to organic growing methods. Given the hard times growers have faced in recent decades—most Americans now revile smoking and farmers in other countries can produce higher volumes for substantially less cost—going organic is one way to keep charging premium prices. While growing organically costs more and yields a slightly less marketable product, farmers can make up the difference and then some since their organic tobacco will command double the price of their competitors’ conventionally grown, chemical-laden variety.
Companies like Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company and Organic Smoke, Inc., for example, are willing to pay this premium for the privilege of marketing the resulting “natural” cigarettes—which also avoid the chemical fillers and even extra nicotine of the standard smoke—as friendlier to the environment. Of course, buyers beware: No cigarette is good for you, whether it contains organic tobacco or not. If you have to smoke, a so-called “natural” cigarette will expose you to fewer toxins overall, but the primary risk still comes from the inhaled carcinogenic smoke of the burning tobacco leaves.
For its part, Santa Fe, maker of the American Spirit brand of “natural” cigarettes, has seen sales increase 10 percent yearly over the last decade to the point where its sales account for about 0.6 percent of the total U.S. cigarette market. During its first year of business two decades ago, Santa Fe bought and processed 4,000 pounds of organic tobacco. In 2008, the company processed two million pounds. Upwards of 100 different farms spread across the U.S., Canada and Brazil now provide Santa Fe with organic tobacco leaf.
Besides buying only organic tobacco and eschewing chemical fillers, the company walks the socially responsible talk, too, powering its facilities with clean energy, extending benefits to same-sex domestic partners, and donating funds and volunteer time to the clean-up of New Mexico’s Santa Fe River.
But what even some of its own customers may not know—you won’t find it on the packaging—is that Santa Fe’s profits are all going toward the bottom line of its corporate parent, Reynolds American, an outgrowth of longtime leading cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds, purveyor of such esteemed conventional brands as Camel, Winston and Salem. Reynolds American, which today sells one out of every three cigarettes sold in the U.S., rolled up Santa Fe as part of a major reorganization in 2004 and has been reaping the benefits of the growth in sales of cigarettes made with organic tobacco ever since.
Growing organic tobacco also benefits the burgeoning organic farming business overall: “Organic certification allows the growth of other high-value seasonal crops, which can demand a premium price on the ever-expanding organic market,” Santa Fe’s leaf director, Fielding Daniel, told the trade publication Tobacco Farm Quarterly, adding that growers are heartened by this new and profitable market and worry less about the cost of, and risk of mishandling, synthetic chemicals.