've spent the last four months working at a liquor store in the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park. This gives the store an interesting demographic makeup: a mixture of South Chicago locals (mostly middle-class blacks) and those affiliated with the University of Chicago (undergrads, graduate students, faculty). While this makes for interesting demographic breakdowns of spirits purchases, cigarette choice offers an even more distinct stratification. What follows is an analysis of brand choice using highly anecdotal evidence.
Marlboro Reds: Favored by the most dedicated, gravelly voiced of smokers. To smoke is to accept consequences in health; to smoke Marlboro Reds is to court these consequences. European nationals overwhelmingly prefer Reds, as do day laborers.
Marlboro Lights: Derisively referred to as "Dad" cigarettes, Marlboro Lights are the go-to brand of the reformed heavy smoker. The cigarettes themselves taste like dirt; smoking them is less for pleasure then for atonement of past sins. Attractive to middle-aged white and Asian males. Often purchased with sheepish, down-turned eyes.
Marlboro Ultra Lights: It's barely smoking at all. Purchased by dilettantes, dabblers, posers, and the smokers that just can't quite quit.
Camel Lights: By far the most popular cigarette of the college student demographic, which makes up close to the entirety of the cigarette purchases. There's little to distinguish Camel Lights from other cigarettes: they're the Camry of cancer sticks. Lights completely dwarf the other Camel brands: aside from a few dedicated Camel Filter buyers, almost no one pays attention to Camel Special Lights, Wides, or the Turkish varieties. Note: I've never, ever sold any kind of menthol Camel, although the store carries four varieties.
Parliament Lights: Formerly dubbed the "hipster" cigarette of choice, P-funks appeal to a small segment of the college student demographic. These buyers tend to be younger, buy cigarettes less often, and are more likely to be female. This is probably the first brand of these smokers. Parliament Lights' mild flavor and novel-yet-useless recessed filter no doubt appeal to those just starting their addiction. While full-flavored Parliaments are available, as well as Ultra Lights and corresponding menthol varieties, they are almost never sold.
Merit: Merits run the typical gamut of varieties (Regular, Light, Ultra Light, Menthol). Exclusively purchased by white women over 40. They come in dingy soft packs, but are no cheaper than more popular cigarettes, implying a small degree of self-loathing. I like to imagine the smoker furtively puffing in the car or bathroom, then attempting to cover up the smell with copious amounts of air freshener. Interestingly enough, this is the same clientele that purchases half-pints of House of Stuart scotch, which I like to imagine is consumed in a similar manner.
Benson & Hedges: The ritzy gold regulars are almost totally eschewed for the emerald glint of the menthol varieties, which are purchased by middle class blacks, largely (but not exclusively) middle-aged women. Only offered in "100" size (normal cigarettes are "King cut"). A touch of class, a touch of luxury, and a heaping dollop of extra tar.
Virginia Slims: Similar to Benson & Hedges: only offered in 100s (except for the 120-length "Luxury Lights) and only the menthol varieties ever sell. V-Slims don't have the broader-based appeal of Benson & Hedges: almost all the purchasers are black, middle-aged women. The subtler packaging and slightly cheaper price appeals to a more demure smoker.
Newports: The cock of the walk at my store: Newports are by far the best-selling cigarette. Its demographic is almost entirely black, from many age and socio-economic groups (however, almost every black person under 30 who buys cigarettes buys Newports). King size smokes sell as well as the 100s (or "Cadillacs"). Customers are often very specific when purchasing; instead of the usual "Reds" or "Camel Lights," a typical request for these exclusively menthol titans goes something like "Newport shorts in a box." Brand loyalty at its finest.
Kools: Kools play second fiddle in the menthol-only orchestra. The only cigarette whose consumers tend to prefer soft packs (an asset to poor souls suffering from DT's), Kools buyers are also exclusively black, but tend to be older. Kool has attempted to delve into the youth market with "designer" packs featuring crudely scrawled figures rapping and mixing, which tends to confuse customers more than entice them. But perhaps 13-year-olds are buying them up.
Basics: The budget cigarette of choice (the bottom shelf cigarettes: Dorals, Best Buys, Commanders, and the like are never purchased and aren't even cheap). Basics come in every variety from full-flavored to ultra-light, as well as menthol. Sparse packaging featuring only a simple brown leaf (what I assume represents tobacco) adds to the ambiance.
Pall Malls: When I am asked which cigarettes are the cheapest, I refer customers to the Pall Malls. I am greeted with a look of skepticism, and the customer then buys a pack of Basics.
Viceroys: Very cheap, but the regal packaging (and name) attracts a definite loyalty in buyers (including older professorial types). Perfect for a night of debauchery, and they leave you with that gravelly voice the next morning that reminds you that you had a good time.
By: Gavin Mueller
Published on: 2004-03-31