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An enduring ritual

In 1880, James Albert Bonsack invented a machine that would revolutionize the tobacco industry—the cigarette maker. Mechanical assembly allowed tobacco companies to increase production, lower per-unit cost and boost profitability. It also made the ready-made cigarette—previously considered a luxury item—affordable to the masses, thus expanding the market by allowing more people to enjoy smoking.

Technology has continued evolving since then. Whereas Bonsack dazzled his contemporaries with a production speed of 200 cigarettes per minute (cpm), today’s top capacities are measured in the tens of thousands. Even in the current age of austerity, an equipment vendor pushing anything with a speed below 8,000 cpm can expect to be hurriedly shown the door.

The efforts of Bonsack and his successors have resulted in a tobacco market hugely dominated by factory-made cigarettes (FMCs). By some estimates, FMCs account for more than 90 percent of all tobacco products sold worldwide. It is all the more remarkable then that, despite the widespread availability of such a convenient alternative, many smokers continue to consume tobacco in the traditional way—by rolling their own cigarettes.

generic - ryoSome are motivated by cost; in many markets, roll-your-own (RYO) tobaccos are taxed at lower rates because fiscal authorities classify them as unfinished products. Others enjoy the ritual; rolling your own cigarettes provides a degree of control over the product’s taste and appearance that FMCs, by design, do not.

Whatever smokers’ motivations, the enduring popularity of RYO tobacco is a testament to the sector’s resilience and, yes, its commitment to innovation. Despite its pre-Bonsack roots and quaint appearance, RYO has evolved significantly over the years, with suppliers introducing make-your-own injectors, magnetic paper booklets and zip-lock pouches, among other novelties.

RYO paper manufacturing, meanwhile, has become a surprisingly sophisticated process, involving the processes of watermarking, gumming, interleaving, packaging, box making and filling.

And innovation continues apace. At TABEXPO London last year, one exhibitor introduced a cigarette paper with curved edges to make rolling easier. The invention has generated considerable interest, with the inventor confidently predicting that, five years from now, half of the world’s rolling papers would have a curved edge.

Whether he’s right, of course, remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that there will be a receptive audience. The astonishing success of FMCs notwithstanding, a core group of smokers will always prefer the time-tested ritual of rolling their own tobaccos—one cigarette at a time.

 

Read the September 2016 digital edition here

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