They’re talking about regime change in Cairo and, from what I hear, in Calcutta. But where I am, a somewhat monumental event has already happened: after 15 years, I’ve changed my cigarette brand. Cigarettes might not be the most healthy way of highlighting the value of choice. But the fact is that if you’re moved enough to change your brand of cigarette, you know that you’re part of an extremely moveable species.
Among the over-the-counter drugs, nicotine’s got to be the most tenacious habit-forming substance. It’s a Catholic-style no-divorcer on par with under-the-counter rotten goodies such as heroin and cocaine. So what’s surprising for me is that cigarette smokers actually bother about what brand they’re smoking.
A Big Tobacco friend of mine tells me that the ingredients don’t vary much at all across brands. It’s mostly habit that makes one company’s 84 mm long ‘king size’ fag ‘taste’ different from that of another company; it’s not about whether it’s ‘honey dew’ or ‘Turkish blend’.
There is, of course, a palpable difference between types of cigarettes: there is the mild cigarette, the menthol cigarette, cigarettes rolled with stronger or lighter tobacco leaves. My Big Tobacco pal also tells me that around 30% of those who have been smoking cigarettes for ten years or more have changed their brand at least once. For products (king size, mild, menthol, no-filter etc) that don’t really vary that much across brands — unlike, say, Wall’s strawberry ice-cream tasting different from Vadilal’s which in turn tastes different from Mother Dairy’s — 30% is a pretty low number for brand switchers.
I can make out the difference in taste between kinds of cigarettes — the throat being the best judge — even if such an ability doesn’t always guarantee correctly identifying brands. But taste wasn’t the only factor that made me loyal to my old brand. Qualities such as availability (in shops or in other people’s pockets), price (tied to my own capacity to spend) and personal ‘deciders’ such as packaging (I prefer buying ten-packs to 20-packs or single sticks, as they provide the illusion of me being in control of the number I smoke and because they make a smaller bulge in my shirt pocket) played their parts.
Which brings me to the question of why I have shifted cigarette brands. Considering I settled on my new brand because it pretty much tastes the same as my old one, the answer could lie in the ‘intangibles’: 1) searching out a new cigarette is my way of mixing things up a bit and dealing with a mid-life crisis, 2) I like the exclusivity of the new brand as it’s harder to find and two rupees more expensive than my old cigarette, 3) I have become disaffected with the company that manufactures my old cigarette, since it’s been downright embarrassed to even consider itself to be a tobacco company after branching out in other sectors.
But what I can’t fathom for the daylights of me is how people can stick to one brand for decades — whether for 30 years in Egypt or 34 years in West Bengal. Is it because of the addictive thrall that Hosni Mubarak and the Left Front government had, till recently, over Egyptians and the people of Bengal? Or is it really because they had no other choice but to be loyal to cancerous brands? If so, why then the sudden hankering for a new brand?
Unlike the loyalists of the two well-past-their-expiry-dates brands in Cairo and Calcutta, I’m still comfy with an old brand. Eleven years ago this week, I joined this newspaper. As the world watches to see if, after my radical break with my smoking past, I will now demand a ‘regime change’, all I can say is that the illusion of having a choice is not to be scoffed at. Or, for that matter, the illusion of having none.