Travels In Indian Tobacco
The smoking preferences of India, through the years.
Tobacco is a taboo word nowadays but, as Richard Klein points out in Cigarettes are Sublime, ‘Americans gripped in the current hysteria have forgotten the affectionate identification of the doughboy’s uniform with “Lucky Strike Green”, and the European hopes and the American pride associated, in 1914, with the promise that “the Camels are coming.” Klein goes on to quote from a pleading letter written by General Pershing, commander of the American troops, to the Minister of War in 1918: ‘You ask what we need to win this war. I will tell you, we need tobacco, more tobacco—even more than food.’
Of late, we’ve seen the hint of a tobacco revival in young, urban India. Handrolling ‘additive-free’American Spirit in brown unbleached paper, and using RAW ‘unrefined’ filter tips, appeals to the hipster Millennial. Traditionally, cigarette brands have always had emotive appeal. In the heyday of smoking, the brand you smoked said something about you, much like the car you drove. A reliable source recently informed me that Sitaram Yechury, leader of the CPI (M), has started smoking again. His chosen brand of relapse: Charms. Not surprising, given the generation he comes from. Besides, you cannot have a Marxist smoking American cigarettes. It doesn’t quite sound right.
American cigarettes haven’t done well in India, on that topic. According to an Edelweiss survey, Classic Mild is the market leader – Indians don’t like strong tobaccos. An urban myth prevails that ‘harsh’ tobaccos are more harmful, which is not scientific fact.
Another urban legend is to do with Wills Navy Cut. The story is passed on from generation to generation. Only the name of the hospital changes: sometimes it’s Lilavati, at other times it’s AIIMS or Tata Memorial. And the story is this: that in these hospitals hangs a board that says ‘Navy Cut smokers will be turned away from treatment.’ ‘Don’t smoke Navy Cuts’, smokers thus warn each other. Like with all urban legends, no one knows where this story came from, but it stuck.
What is a lesser-known fact is that both Navy Cut and Gold Flake were British brands, manufactured by the Bristol-based W.D&H.O Wills. Navy Cut was discontinued in the U.K in the 1950s, while Gold Flake was taken off the market in England in 1986. It continued to be available in Ireland, something I didn’t know. In 1999, I got the shock of my life when I saw a vintage Gold Flake poster in a Dublin pub window, for we’ve always thought of Gold Flake as the quintessential Indian cigarette.
Old print advertisements for Indian cigarettes are fascinating documents of a bygone era. Gold Flake ads usually featured two well-heeled couples conversing at a party:
The tinkle of crystal, the sparkle of talk and laughter… and Gold Flake. Great quality…
For the gracious people.
The men smoke. The women are shown holding glasses, but never smoking. In the 1960s, the slogan for unfiltered Gold Flake was: ‘Wherever you go they’re good’. The packet was coloured differently in different countries: white in Ireland, Dunhill-maroon in Malaysia and yellow in India.
Navy Cut was sold under the iconic tagline (again with a picture of a couple in love) ‘Made for each other’. The ad hints at the cigarette being a loyal companion-aid to romantic coupling, but it’s also about the filter and the tobacco being an ideal fit— the 1960s being the time when companies began trying to wean users away from plain to filtered cigarettes.
A Charminar filter ad from the 1970s again features a couple, this time riding a motorbike. Unlike the Gold Flake couple, the Charminar couple is unmarried, probably in college or in first jobs. It’s positioned as a youthful cigarette:
‘Give me a bike Give me a highway Give me my girl… And give me the taste of toasted tobacco.’
A 1980s ad for Mr Yechury’s favoured brand, Charms, features a sexy couple canoodling on a parked motorcycle:
‘This is the spirit of freedom
This is the age of Charms
The unmistakable taste of fine Virginia tobaccos
And the unmistakable denim pack in a regular size…
It tastes so good.’
Couples and cigarettes, it seems, always went hand-in-hand in India. Not for us the solitary lassoing cowboy-hatted splendour of the macho Marlboro man.