Cigarette Pushers

Big tobacco's last stand

It was another crowded Thursday night at Whisky River when a man with a black satchel walked in the door, followed by a guy holding a gadget that looked like a portable credit card machine. As soon as they entered, a few savvy patrons approached. Soon a small crowd had formed, and the reason for the sudden commotion became clear.

The free-cigarette guys were here.

Driver’s licenses were verified and personal information — mailing address, e-mail — was entered into the gadget in return for complimentary packs of Camel and Pall Mall pulled from the satchel. The men made their rounds of the bar and were on their way.

Tobacco ads no longer appear in newspapers and magazines. They’re forbidden from radio and television commercials, ballpark signs, and billboards. Heroes and heroines rarely smoke in movies. Aside from in-store displays and age-verified direct mailings, in fact, the marketers in bars and nightclubs (or age-restricted venues, as a tobacco rep would say) are a cigarette company’s last way to reach out to potential customers in the United States.

"The bottom line is, our product is under so many restrictions that we have very few avenues to communicate with adult tobacco consumers," says David Howard, a spokesman for R. J. Reynolds, the Winston-Salem-based producer of Camel, Kool, and Pall Mall, among other brands. And starting this month, the Food and Drug Administration has put yet another restriction in place: bar marketers can no longer hand out free smokes. A coupon for a discounted pack will now have to do.

Marketers don’t push their product on people who say they’re not interested, and they only operate in the bars and clubs that’ll have them. As for the info entered into the gadget, that’s for company use and isn’t shared — particularly with health insurance providers, as an urban legend holds.

Tim Dinger moved to Charlotte from Chicago in 1999 and started as a marketer while studying at UNCC. He says the job was a great way to get to know a new city. Within months, he had friends and connections throughout Charlotte.

"Everybody’s out in the Charlotte nightlife," he says.

Dinger is now a program manager at Charlotte’s BFG Communications, which R. J. Reynolds contracts with for its bar marketing. On any given night, he’ll have as many as four teams of two or three people patrolling the city’s most popular nightspots, sometimes until as late as 2 a.m.

While the job can be, on occasion, what Dinger calls a "double-edged sword" when marketers run into people who aren’t too keen on tobacco, the marketers have tended to get the type of welcome they saw that Thursday night at Whisky River.
"I’m not gonna lie," Dinger says. "We usually feel pretty popular."

However, with the new restrictions, chances are the bar marketers will lose some of their star power. They’re not the free-cigarette guys anymore. Now they’re just the coupon dudes.

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