It's simple business sense, really. You market a product that is both addictive and lethal? Well, try creating a variation that is still severely habit-forming but much less deadly. A cigarette that will satisfy nicotine-worshipping customers the world 'round while keeping them alive for another pack. A cigarette that will stand at the mythical confluence of increased health, increased public relations, and increased cash inflow. A cigarette that will confound and diminish your numerous enemies and stem the hemorrhaging from multibillion lawsuit settlements while boosting stock price into the near-stratosphere.
RJ Reynolds thought they had the answer, this übercigarette, if you will, when the Premiere was introduced into select markets in late 1988.
The Premiere cigarette was, in concept, the purest distillation of the act of smoking yet created. Nicotine, yes, nicotine, unadulterated and uncut, minus that heady blend of 30,000 carcinogens collectively known as 'tar'. But more than that! Much more! For what stimulates your neural pathways as much as that chemical rush? Why, the sensual feast of the ritual. The grinding of flint, ridges against the pad of the thumb, the whiff of butane and then repetition, glorious, nerve-calming repetition, of the cigarette being brought to your lips time and time again.
So no nicotine pads! No syringes, no pills, nothing to inject or snort or rub into your eyelids, nothing that pedestrian. No, this had to be a cigarette, same shape, same size. The mere sight of it should send smokers worldwide into Pavlonian drool floods, and the feel should be exquisitely authentic, squishy filtered tip between thumb and forefinger. And the taste?
Well, we'll get to the taste in a bit. But first, the science!
The Premiere cigarette was to be totally smokeless. How could you deliver the payload of nicotine without smoke, you ask? Water vapor, that's how. Use a solidified glycerine that will emit only one oxygen atom per two hydrogen atoms when influenced by heat, impregnate with said nicotine, and puff away. The nicotine is not very harmful at all - it's the tar, the amalgam of every harmful substance that results from normal combustion, that's the culprit - so you can continue your normal life, breathing in addictive steam for twelve to twenty-four times a day (or more).
So we have a carbon tip that is heated (remember, kids, burning is bad; all heat must come from as little combustion as possible) and an aluminum cylinder inside the cigarette body, bearing beads of gylcerin and crystallized nicotine. All the calming addictiveness of the cigarette with none of the harm.
But now, the rub. That harm is what provides the flavor, the final component in the sense-tastic smorgasborg of smoking. Without it, you taste water and what carbon-and-butane zest that's being emitted from the heated tip. So some tar must be added. Tobacco is packed around the edge of the cylinder (where it will hopefully smoke as little as possible), and chemicals and oils of every stripe are sent in to do battle with your taste buds. Strong warnings are sent to request that smokers use only butane lighters instead of matches, lest ye find sulfur amassing on your tongue. The beautiful purity is now divested from the recipe. And all that for a taste that is, after heavy refinement, favorably compared to pig shit. It got no better than this.
And that, in a nutshell, is the Premiere cigarette. It came in the fall of 1988, birthed with 8 years of research and $325 million of investor backing, and went a scant four months later, dead of the scorn of the public at large. Those with a near-epicurean love of the whiff of tobacco, which ended up being the vast majority of the public, bought it like Billy Beer - a single pack to adorn the mantelpiece for posterity, and no more, a reminder, not unlike the skull that sits atop the poet's desk, that failure graces us all in time.
RJ Reynolds was weakened by this exploit, weakened enough that it was gobbled up and assimilated by another company, forming into the fearsome entity called RJR Nabisco - if the secondhand smoke doesn't get you, the fat-laden snacks will. People would again and again try to create a healthy (or, healthier) smoke, including RJR Nabisco's Eclipse cigarette (featuring the same carbon tip, but now heating shredded tobacco), but still for naught.
What newsclip do I remember most from the Nova documentary I viewed about this? One of a young entrepreneur, bedecked in the power tie so beloved of that era, and besotted with that peculiar strain of '80s Asian paranoia, taking a toke and proclaiming 'Yeah... I can see why all the Japanese are scared of us now!'