The gradual ascent to Robin Sommers’s property in the foothills above Santa Fe, N.M., takes you along switchbacks, past sheer drops and the stone-pillared gates of photographer Herb Ritts’s former estate. By the time you arrive at Sommers’s compound, conjured out of the rock and old-growth ponderosa pines, you’re at an elevation of some 8,000 feet—the threshold, according to the CDC, for the onset of altitude sickness.
Sommers, 72, is the longtime marketing brain and former chief executive officer of Santa Fe Natural Tobacco, maker of Natural American Spirit, the “additive-free” and “organic” cigarette of choice. Meeting him felt auspicious and a little strange. As a committed, third-of-a-$12.50-a-pack-a-day American Spirit smoker (the flagship blue, “full-bodied” smoke, additive-free but not organic), I remain a hapless acolyte of the company’s absurd “but what if” Tao, which implies that its cigarettes are, if not NOT safer, as the tiny proviso on the side of the pack warns, then healthier if you already smoke.
What I inhale comes from volatilizing the tobacco leaf and the leaf only, without all the chemicals and flavorings put in conventional brands—thus achieving the following: purer taste, a longer-lasting smoke, the satisfaction of knowing I’m not a tool of Big Tobacco, and a karmic kinship with the earth that might double as a peace offering to the cancer gods. Or at least this was the notion on which Santa Fe Natural Tobacco floated along dreamily, as it grew from an independently owned business operating behind the Santa Fe rail yard to become an arm of R.J. Reynolds, which bought the company in 2002 for $340 million.