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Smoking Modems

In the time it takes to light a cigarette, smoke it and stub it out, an Internet search for cigarettes, tobacco and cigars will turn up enough smoking-related products to keep you free of nic-fits for a good long while. In the past several years, a small -- but growing -- number of enterprising retailers has discovered that the Web is the perfect place to expand not only their catalogs but their customer base.It's one step ahead of catalog shopping, inasmuch as Web users can see the products and order them all from one Web site. Fine cigars, nifty lighters and chewing tobacco (including a nontobacco alternative made from chopped mint leaves) are all available with just a point and click -- and the disclosure of your credit card number, of course.While it's been illegal since 1971 to advertise cigarettes on any electronic media that comes under the FCC's regulation, the Internet throws a whole new smoke screen into the works.For one thing, the FCC's official position regarding the Internet is to stay away from any unnecessary regulation.However, last June's proposed resolution to the attorney general's tobacco industry settlement suggested that, in the future, tobacco advertising on the Internet would be prohibited if the individual Web sites were accessible to computer users in the United States.There's virtually no way to block access to a whole country full of computer users. And so, in the meantime, cyber screens are lighting up -- literally and figuratively -- with online tobacco advertising.So far the understandably cautious big cigarette companies, such as Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, have largely kept away from the medium. But smaller companies have been breaking new ground and taking full advantage of the Internet's power to advertise, sell and take copious orders from tobacco users around the world.For Joseph Pandolfino, president of Alternative Cigarettes Inc, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based wholesaler and retailer, the Internet is a fine place to let people know about his 5-year-old "microcigarette" company.Following in the footsteps of microbreweries, and a few steps ahead of the no-additives Winstons, microcigarette companies (there are fewer than half a dozen in the whole country) offer all-natural products, with no additives or preservatives in their tobacco blends.Such companies have a slim slice of the cigarette pie, explains Pandolfino. "The five major cigarette companies É control about 99 percent of the market, and about five other ones control the other 1 percent," he estimates. "But it's a $50 billion market."Because we're not one of the bigger companies, we have to find other ways to compete and get the word out to smokers and retailers." His Web site (http://www. altcigs.com) has been in operation for about a year and a half, and Pandolfino says the response has been "really good."While tax regulations prohibit cigarette retailers from selling their products across state lines, Pandolfino's company is able to ship his all-natural "Pure" and "Glory" brand cigarettes to retailers in all 50 states. Through the Web site, individual smokers can find out where their nearest retailer is."The only brand you can order directly on the Internet would be the Herbal Gold," says Pandolfino, referring to his company's line of tobacco-free cigarettes. But, he adds, he's also working with a team of botanists to develop a nicotine-free tobacco plant, which is expected to be available -- in smokable form, of course -- as early as autumn 1998.And that, he adds, will get him around the regulations in the proposed tobacco settlement. "It hasn't been signed by Congress yet," he points out. "A lot of people want a lot of changes. In the worst case scenario, we'd still be able to advertise our herbal cigarettes."In the meantime, a culture of cigar and cigarette cool is making itself known on the Net. Just as more and more people are discovering the odoriferous joys of cigar smoking, Web sites such as "Dave's Smoke and Be Cool Page" (http:// members.aol.com/rtvdave/smokecool.html) are blowing smoke in the faces of those who would try to prohibit their smoking pleasures."If you are viewing this page in the interest of the recently announced Ôcrackdown' against Web sites whose editorial slants in favor of smoking, you are one of two kinds of people," the site reads. "A cool person who wants to be informed or an asshole. If you are an asshole, please read no further. You will only be informed, and that's not for you."It's all in your attitude, Dave implies.Another site (http://www. moonshadow.com/cigarette/cigarette.htm) stubs out current advertising rules and revives the now-dead Joe Camel in a nostalgic look at tobacco advertising through the ages.But if cigarettes, and their advertising mascots, have come under fire in recent years, there are still plenty of tobacco products that are easily available on the Web.According to Adam Krischer, business coordinator for Georgetown Tobacco, a Washington, D.C.-based cigar company that advertises and offers direct ordering on the Web, the Internet holds vast possibilities.For one thing, the state-line regulations on cigarettes don't apply to cigars and other tobacco products, says Krischer. And neither do the current proposals with regard to advertising in general. "Cigars are still OK," he adds. "The president didn't call them Ônicotine delivery devices.' "While Georgetown Tobacco has offered online ordering only since May, it already accounts for 5 percent of the company's business -- and that number seems to be growing, as more of the company's catalog customers switch to online ordering."We started it just to see if people would buy online," says Krischer. Since some cigar aficionados were trying desperately to find their favorite puffs by calling tobacconists across the country, he explains, they were eager to take the Internet shortcut.The company plans to add more to its Web site (http://www.gttobacco.com/) to encourage repeat visits. Krischer enthusiastically lists the additions, which will include employee and customer ratings of various cigars and tobacco products, major tobacco company-sponsored contests which people will be able to enter by sending e-mail, and discussion groups that might tackle anything from cigar favorites to the thornier issue of tobacco advertising itself.While he, like Pandolfino, hopes tobacco advertising on the Internet won't become as regulated as it is in other media, Krischer is prepared if it does. "At the very least, we could leave up (on the Web site) our discussion groups," he says. "And I'm not sure if online ordering would consist of advertising."For the moment, however, he isn't too worried. "They already lost one war on regulating the Internet," he says, alluding to 1995's overturned Communications Decency Act. "If people don't want to see certain things, they shouldn't go there."Alisa Gordaneer is the Metro Times features editor. She doesn't smoke.

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