A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How come you never see Class B cigarettes?

July 11, 1997

Dear Cecil:

I've bought many cigarettes in my years, but all of them have been class A cigarettes. I've seen third-class mail, grade B beef, and C-average math, but why no class B cigarettes?

Cecil replies:

We're not big on smoking around here, Shaft, but we figure whatsoever concerns humanity should concern us. So we called up Cliff at the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (and don't those sound like the ingredients for a great camping trip?). Cliff revealed the following facts:

(1) Federal revenooers recognize two kinds of cigarettes: small cigarettes (class A), which weigh up to three pounds per thousand and are taxed at $12 per thou; and large cigarettes (class B), which weigh more than three pounds per thousand and have a tax rate of $25.20.

(2) Total class A cigarettes produced in fiscal 1996: 755 billion.

(3) Total class B cigarettes produced in fiscal 1996: zero.

We thought: boy, this sounds like an extremely useful classification system. What other nonexistent cigarettes can we dream up categories for? Concrete cigarettes! Electrical cigarettes! Cigarettes with stainless steel linings!

This just shows what a bad attitude we have. Cliff patiently explained that in fiscal 1995, 83,000 class B cigarettes were produced, and 105 million were taxed.

We thought about this, then we asked the obvious question: "Huh?"

"They must have been cleaning out the inventory," Cliff replied. Cigarettes aren't taxed until they're put into sales channels. The market for class B cigarettes was declining rapidly.

This doesn't sound like a market that's declining, we thought. This sounds like a market that's dropped dead. We asked Cliff: have you ever seen a class B cigarette?

Sure, Cliff said. We then heard the sound of someone rummaging around in what we took to be the ATF's Big Drawer of Cool Stuff. "There's a hookah in here!" Cliff exclaimed at one point. At last he found what he wanted: a brand called Cigarettellos. He was cagey about the manufacturer's identity, no doubt having a certain paranoia about spilling the beans on the tobacco industry to weasels from the press. But we found out. Cigarettellos were manufactured by Nat Sherman International, a purveyor of fine tobacco products in New York City and for many years one of the only makers of class Bs.

On the horn with Joel Sherman, president of Nat Sherman International, we ascertained the following truths:

(1) Cigarettellos were ordinary cigarettes except that they were 6.5 inches long. This gives you a clue as to the long-term marketing problem faced by this brand. You're conspicuous enough smoking one of those 100-millimeter jobs; who wants to be seen waving a cigarette the size of a magic wand?

(2) Nat Sherman also made several other brands of large cigarettes, including Fantasia (which were rolled in multicolored paper) and MCD Double. As near as Joel could recall, they'd been introduced as novelty items in the 1960s. But they sold in minuscule quantities — mostly through specialty tobacco shops — and they were a pain to make. After losing money on them for 30 years, Joel figured the market was telling him something, and what it was telling him was, "Don't make these cigarettes." So around 1995 he threw in the towel.

(3) The brands are still made in four-inch class A versions, however, just in case you want to re-create the class B experience with scissors and Elmer's glue.

But Joel, we said, you pulled the plug on a product that was moving 105 million in its last year. This number is minuscule? Wasn't all us, said Joel. He recalled something about one of the majors test-marketing a class B cigarette with greater circumference rather than length. We are not seeing the sexiness of this, and apparently neither was anyone else. The product was withdrawn.

So now you're thinking: damn, no more class B cigarettes! There's a hole in my life that shall never be filled. You might be able to bum one of Cliff's 'tellos. But if not, never fear: you can still get class B clove cigarettes. We know this because our assistant Jane found some in a smoke shop. They're not big, they're more lethal than all-tobacco smokes, and why they don't show up in the ATF statistics, even Cliff can't explain. But class B is class B.

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