Cover Story — 200,000 cigarettes

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The Reynolds American factory in Tobaccoville, NC churns out 10,000 cigarettes a minute.

by Brian Clarey

“You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I grip the little tab and whip the top of the cellophane packaging off with a quick rotation of my hands, flip the top of the box open with a fingertip.

The move wasn’t always so smooth. When I was young — way too young to be doing this, if I’m being honest — I would sometimes tear the top off the box or break the first one when I pulled it from the pack.

By now, perhaps my 11,000th time opening a pack of cigarettes, I know to pinch the filter of the first smoke before I slide it out.

I twiddle it between my fingers a little before I put it in my mouth, always near the left corner, then slap my pocket for a light.

When I first started smoking cigarettes all those years ago, it was always matches: pilfered from a father’s nightstand, lifted from a mother’s purse, plundered from restaurants and bars when they used to give out book matches like they were toothpicks. Occasionally I or one of my degenerate teenage friends would get our hands on a lighter — we never bought lighters, because back then a lighter was more expensive than a pack of cigarettes. When I was a little older, for a time, I carried a Zippo, learned to flip it open and strike the flame on the seat of my jeans like a Hollywood greaser. That move didn’t last long in the repertoire, but I still love the metallic snap of a Zippo being snapped shut. Still love the smell, too.

These days I use a standard Bic, curl it in the fingers of my right hand, brace the bottom with the base joint of my pinky and spin the wheel a quarter turn to bring the flame.

I tilt my head to the side and then down, cup my left hand to the fire whether there’s any wind or not, and lift it to the end of my cigarette.

The first pull is just to get it going. But the second one is for real. I bring the smoke into my mouth, let a little slip from between my lips and then suck the whole charge down into my lungs, hold it there for a long second and then blow it out, letting it pass by my teeth, puffing my cheeks just a little bit.

It’s like this every time: mechanical, efficient, purposeful, effective. I’ve been smoking cigarettes for 30 years, and I’ve gotten pretty damn good at it.

Go ahead and do the math: I’ll be 44 in a month, which means that when I began smoking cigarettes I was way too young to be doing such a thing. And like most smokers, I wish I had never started. All teenagers do stupid things, but most of us aren’t still doing them 30 years later.

Reynolds American acquired the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., makers of American Spirits, in November 2001.
Reynolds American acquired the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., makers of American Spirits, in November 2001.

I wasn’t the only one. My friends Dave and Tom could always be counted on for a smoke session behind the railroad trestle next to our junior high school — we called it “The Cove” — or in a thicket of trees on the golf course. In the summertime, Vince, Ian, Kevin and I would creep into the sand dunes to burn down single smokes we had cadged from our fathers’ packs. In the mall we smoked in public — you could smoke pretty much everywhere except elevators back then — though sometimes a parent’s friend would see us and make a report. We had to keep it secret. Because we were too young to be smoking.

We must have looked ridiculous. But we didn’t think so. We thought we looked cool.

Most of my old friends have quit by now, but not me. The closest I ever came was a three-month period of cessation, ended the minute a personal crisis reared its head.

Cigarettes calm me down. The help me think — smoking is great for a-ha moments and considered planning. They also are likely affecting my health, but I believe that is relative. I can still run four or five miles, my smoker’s cough only makes itself known in the early mornings and late nights and my blood pressure is in the low-normal range.

It’s not good for me, but neither is deep-fried food, in which I rarely indulge these days, or sitting still for too long, which doesn’t happen at all.

I should probably quit smoking, but I don’t. I like smoking, And every time I see an old person smoking, I say to myself, “Well, there you go.”

Smoking is the last of my vices. And for now I’m hanging on to it.

 

In 1984, roughly the time I picked up this habit, Americans smoked 600 billion cigarettes. It was hardly the heyday of smoking — the high-water mark was probably 1963, when 4,345 cigarettes were smoked for every man and woman in the country over the age of 18. Or 1981, when we consumed 640 billion of the things, a moment regarded in the industry as a peak.

That was the year Surgeon General Julius B. Richmond reported what everybody pretty much knew: Cigarettes are bad for you, no matter how low the levels of tar and nicotine. Usage among Americans has been in steady decline since.

Tar and nicotine. When you get behind the packaging, the brand recognition and flavor profiles, in the end smoking is all about these toxic twins.

Tar is the brown stuff that gets on my fingers when I smoke — more so when, briefly, I experimented with roll-your-owns. When I take in a lungful of smoke, the tar residue coats my cilia and eventually deadens them, preventing them from forming their filtration function. That’s part of the light buzz that comes from cigarettes.

The other is nicotine, which is a straight-up drug occurring naturally in the tobacco plant and other nightshades, both a stimulant and a relaxant — in junkie parlance, a perfect speedball all wrapped up and ready to go, sold in packs of 20 at any gas station. On the plus side, nicotine enhances concentration and memory, reduces pain and anxiety. The downside is that once you get a taste of it, you want it all the time.

But tobacco isn’t like a lot of other drugs. It’s legal, if occasionally frowned upon, and also heavily regulated. You can buy it just about anywhere, in a variety of forms — smokeless tobacco and vapes are more popular then ever, perhaps an effect of the regulation creep.

You can’t smoke anywhere these days except at home and in your car. Cigarette ads haven’t aired on television since the 1970, after the passage of the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act in 1971. In 1999, cigarettes were banned from billboards by a lawsuit against the tobacco companies; terms of the victory dictated that Big Tobacco had to allow anti-smoking messages in place of the ads until the leases ran out. The lawsuit also resulted in a ban of logo merchandise and cartoons in cigarette advertising.

Goodbye Joe Camel.

Smoking has dropped in this country by about half since the 1960s, but still 18 percent of US adults, about 42.1 million people, smoke almost 300 billion cigarettes a year.

And about 40 percent of them are made right here in the Triad.

In Greensboro we have Lorillard, at the bottom of the Big Three companies — but they make Newports, the No. 2 brand in the United States. Lorillard shipped 40.2 billion cigarettes in 2012, employing some 2,800 people to do it, most of them in Greensboro.

Nat Sherman, the boutique Fifth Avenue tobacconist in New York City also maintains a Greensboro facility for the manufacture of their line of luxury cigarettes.

The No. 1 cigarette in the country is Marlboro, made by Philip Morris in Virginia.

The big player around here is Reynolds American, located in Winston-Salem, maker of Camels, No. 4 in the US brand rankings, and Pall Mall, which is No. 3.

Pall Mall?

The 2 million square-foot facility in Tobaccoville sits on a 614-acre site.
The 2 million square-foot facility in Tobaccoville sits on a 614-acre site.

The history of the United States is sown with tobacco seeds. The textbooks give a lot of lip service to religious freedom and huddled masses, but all evidence shows that the early British settlement in Jamestown was a business deal. The climate in Virginia proved suitable for tobacco, and smoking, a habit borrowed from Native Americans, had begun to catch on in English society. By 1630, Jamestown’s tobacco farmers were sending more than 1.5 million pounds across the pond through the auspices of the Virginia Company of London.

Tobacco was a slave crop in the early days of this country — our British overlords exacted a heavy tax on the product, and nothing keeps costs down like free labor.

But during the Revolutionary War, the British wouldn’t take our tobacco, so we started smoking it ourselves.

It was mostly pipes and cigars back then. The cigarette as we know it came along as a product of the War of 1812, a poor-man’s smoke of minced tobacco rolled in a cornhusk or strip of paper in the Andalusian style, popularized by French soldiers.

But the cigarette did not catch hold in this country until after the Civil War, for the simple fact that it was cheaper to make, and there were no more slaves to help.

RJ Reynolds, the man, came along shortly after that.

He was born to a tobacco family in Virginia, but in 1874 he rode into to Winston-Salem on horseback as an independent businessman with a pocketful of seeds, as the story goes.

Winston-Salem was one of the biggest cities in the South at the time, due almost exclusively to its status as a major player in the tobacco market. The city had 15 different companies at the time, was surrounded by fields that grew it, held acres of warehouses to hold it and an annual market to sell it.

Reynolds was able to establish dominance in the market and over the next hundred years his heirs and the company he built would underwrite much of the growth of the city.

 

Richard Smith, lead manager for communications of Reynolds American, the massive corporation that RJ built, takes me out to Tobaccoville, a quick jaunt of about 15 miles from company headquarters in downtown Winston-Salem. He no longer consumes what is now termed in the industry “combustible cigarettes,” but he says when he was a few years younger, playing in bands, he smoked Camel unfiltered.

“Everyone was bumming cigarettes at the time,” he says by way of explanation, “and no one wanted those.”

He’s got me alone in the car for a good 25 minutes before we get to the facility in Tobaccoville, where they make the cigarettes, and he stays on message.

Pall Malls and the Camel line, he says, are designated as growth brands — moneymakers that get most of the advertising dollars. The B-list products — Winstons, Salems, Kools, Dorals, Mistys and Capris — are the beneficiaries of “limited marketing support,” according to the company website.

Smith talks about the other products, too: smokeless, snuff, the new vape called “Vuse.” He hits on the company’s new marketing slogan — “Transforming Tobacco” — no less than three times during the drive. I hope he gets a bonus if I mention it.

The 2 million square-foot cigarette factory in Tobaccoville sits on a 614-acre site — 46 of them are indoors. About 350 million smokes a day come out of this place, 80 billion a year. The machines that put them together churn out about 10,000 cigarettes per minute. In half an hour they make more cigarettes than I have smoked in my lifetime. By a lot.

I’m expecting something of a Willy Wonkian experience: Cigarettes are a product I’ve used almost my whole life. Roughly 30 years at an average of a pack a day puts me at more than 200,000 cigarettes. In my heaviest smoking years, which I’d say were from 1993 to 2000, the roughly 100,000 Winston Ultra Lights I smoked were made right here.

“You’ll like the building,” Smith says. “You can smoke in there.”

Indeed you can. Six gleaming crystal ashtrays sit at intervals around a conference table in an upstairs room. I do my thing with a fresh deck of yellow American Spirits — a Reynolds product as of November 2001, when they acquired the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., makers of the American Spirit line of smokes, for $320 million in cash — and spark a nice, fresh smoke.

Kenneth Cavenaugh, an engineer, runs the place. He’s second generation — his father worked for Brown & Wiliamson, which Reynolds bought in 2005.

The company has a pattern of buying up its competitors, like in 2009 when they picked up Niconovum, maker of a line of nicotine products designed to help people quit smoking, or in 2006, when they bought the smokeless tobacco company that makes Grizzly.

Talk this week is of a possibly buyout of the Newport brand from its Greensboro rival Lorillard.  Newport makes up about 80 percent of Lorillard’s sales — remember, it’s the No. 2 cigarette in the country. But nobody in either camp will speak about the possibility of a merger or buyout.

Tobacco comes into the factory from all over the world. Camels, true to the label, use Turkish tobacco in the blend. More comes in from Thailand, Malawi, Brazil, the Philippines. A lot of it grows right here in North Carolina.

A robot cuts the cases and dumps the leaves onto a conveyor, and an automated guillotine chops the bales into thirds. The smell of tobacco here can burn the nostrils just a bit. A rotary drum rehydrates the leaves and then they go into a bulker that holds 60,000 pounds of product. These huge, rectangular megaliths occupy much of the factory’s floor space, occasionally coming to life in a whir as the tobacco moves on to the next station.

“Some of this place is kind of like The Matrix,” Smith says.

Upstairs, an army of humans and machines turns the tobacco into cigarettes, puts the cigarettes in packs of 20, puts packs into cartons of 10, then into cases of 60, then pallet of 21. A pallet equals exactly 252,000 smokes. At my current rate, about 15 cigarettes a day, I’ll have smoked that many by the time I’m 50.

In the upstairs operation, cellulose is spun into filters that shoot single-file into a mesh of gears and belts and cutters to conjoin with tobacco and paper, emerging as cigarettes onto a belt that spirals overhead to a bumper and then a packing apparatus that assembles the boxes and lines them with foil before wrapping them around three rows of smokes — seven and six and seven, 20 per pack.

“Know what that foil is?” Smith asks. “It’s Reynolds Wrap.”

Over here they’re making Kools for the Japanese market in a modern silver-and-white pack. Over there they’re dumping factory reject Pall Malls into a bin from which they’ll be fed into another machine that will gently slice them open so the tobacco can be reused. One apparatus places menthol flavor capsules precisely into the center of Camel filters. They’re putting together Kents with a three-chamber charcoal filter preferred in Asia, and there’s a special set of machinery for Camel Wides. AGAs — automatically guided vehicles — do the heavy lifting.

Every single cigarette is a technological marvel, a testament to American ingenuity, a miracle of science. When you know how much goes into the making of a cigarette, it seems almost ridiculous not to smoke it.

 

Later, Smith and I take a late lunch in the Reynolds American company cafeteria. I have the last order of shrimp and grits. Smith gets a fat wrap — ironically, it’s assembled in much the same way cigarettes used to be: Fill it with goodies and roll it up.

He’s young — younger than I am, anyway — and he came on board at Reynolds American about five years ago. He has a similar job as the villain in the book and film Thank You for Smoking: Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for Big Tobacco who defends Americans’ right to smoke in Washington DC with varying degrees of unethical behavior. Smith isn’t like that, though.

“It’s not like that anymore,” he says. “If that was the job, I wouldn’t have taken it.”

And he’s willing to make an admission.

“There is no safe tobacco product,” he says. That’s the stance of the modern tobacco company. And he’s right: It’s transformative.

“There are many reasons why smokers keep smoking,” he continues. “Obviously the chemical nicotine, which has effects that people find desirable. It gives you something to do with your hands. ‘I’m stressed,’ or ‘It keeps me slim’ or ‘I like the way it tastes with my coffee.’

“It’s pleasure. It feels good. People like it. All kinds of reasons. It’s a legal product and people want it. There are risks, but we believe adults make informed decisions.

“But the fact is, fewer and fewer cigarettes are smoked every year. These days it’s about market share.”

 

Afterwards, I get in my car for the drive home, thinking about cigarettes and the people who make them, what smoking has done for the community in which I live — both the good and the bad.

And I think about my own habit, how long I’ve held onto it despite the growing inconvenience and increasing cost. I won’t defend it — I know I shouldn’t be smoking.

He gave me a sample of the Vuse, the company’s new digital vape product: a slim, stainless-steel, space-age looking thing that uses flavored steam instead of actual smoke, odorless and ashless, suitable for using indoors — though there’s already talk in California of banning these things in public, too. I get it out of the packaging and give it a couple pulls. It’s not bad, doesn’t transfer tar to my fingertips, won’t burn my car seats; there’s no butt to throw out the window. It’s preferable in every way to a combustible, but to me it’s just not a smoke.

I slide one of my American Spirits from the pack, spark it up and take a deep pull, then exhale slowly, filling my car with real smoke.

That’s the stuff.

Smokers are a dying breed — no pun intended. We smoke outside in the rain, huddled in our cars, sequestered in our backyards and garages, propping up an industry that once fueled a global economy, now fighting for relevance in a world that’s moved on.

We’ve been marginalized by anti-smoking laws, disincentivized by high taxation, nagged by our more health-conscious friends and family. Yet stubbornly we move along.

I roll the smoke in my mouth, suck it down into my lungs and exhale through my nose. It used to burn my sinuses a little when I did that, way back when I first started smoking.

Now it just feels good.

  • Pistol Pete

    Wow….. those first few paragraphs bring it home. I’m trying to quit (53 y.o)