In late 1972, I applied for a job as a company representative for Rizla, the manufacturer of cigarette papers. The LaCroix family had been involved in paper production in France since the 16th century. As early as the late 17th century, the company began to market papers specifically targeted at the emerging hand-rolling cigarette market, which was beginning to become an alternative to pipe smoking. By modern times, they were the the leader in the distribution of cigarette papers, and even though there seemed to be other brands available, they were probably a subsidiary. In effect, they had a European monopoly of these products. The foundation of the paper is rice, hence the name; RIZLA+. Riz is French for rice, and the La Croix family name was shortened by the use of the cross symbol.
I was successful, and employed to cover the areas in the East; Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, and parts of East London as well. At that time, the company operated from a head office in the somewhat unusual setting of Treforest, near Pontypridd, Glamorganshire, in Wales. I went down there and collected my new company car, a Ford Cortina Estate. I also picked up my promotional material, which mainly consisted of the perspex holders that you see mounted in shops, and the then innovative solar-powered window spinners, that rotated in shop windows.
The great thing about that job, was that they did not actually want us to sell anything. It was actively discouraged in fact, and any orders placed during visits would be passed on to local wholesalers, who the company used to distribute all their products.
My role was simply to raise awareness of the product, act as a middleman between retailer and wholesaler, and to get as much promotional material into the shops as space would allow. There was a very good reason for this. Hand rolling was in decline; sales of rolling tobacco were falling, so it seemed logical to assume that our sales would suffer correspondingly. Rizla had decided to recruit a new team, with a new mission, to make hand-rolling sexy again, and to get it into the view of the new generation of smokers.
It was not that people were not smoking, if anything it was on the increase, especially with young women. There was a new trend for women to work, even after marriage, and having children. They had more disposable income than ever before, and wanted to spend some of it on cigarettes. Similarly, youngsters were leaving school and finding it easy to get jobs. They had money in their pockets, and they wanted to seem grown-up too, so smoking was an obvious choice. The trouble for the hand-rolling industry, was that these new groups of smokers were shying away from roll-ups. They were seen as lower-class, old-fashioned, and indicative of low incomes, and manual jobs. Something needed to be done, and fast.
At the same time, the cigarette industry was pouring millions into some of the most sophisticated advertising campaigns ever seen in the UK. Short films were made, at huge cost, and shown in cinemas as advertisements. Sports sponsorship was also still popular at that time, and Formula 1 Racing was more or less funded by sponsorship from major cigarette brands. Think of Marlboro, JPS, Camel, Winston, Lucky Strike, and many others, who all had racing companies driving or riding under their logos, and in their colours.
Somehow, Old Holborn or Golden Virginia just didn’t seem very 70’s. Racing car drivers, film stars and celebrities, were all constantly seen smoking, on and off screen. But nobody had been seen hand-rolling cigarettes since the days of John Wayne in westerns. It was going to be an uphill struggle, to compete with the giant tobacco companies, and try to make roll-ups fashionable.
After a short time in the job, it soon became apparent to me, along with everyone else in the company, that our retail customers were not interested in being trendy. They fell into distinct categories. There were those who saw hand-rolling as an economical way to smoke, and others who just preferred the taste of the various tobaccos on offer, as they were devoid of any chemicals to assist burning, and gave a mellower smoking experience as a result. The third, and newer category, was the young rebel, the person who wanted to smoke, but wanted to be different, so chose to hand-roll, almost as a statement. Whatever way you looked at it, persuading the majority of cigarette smokers to change, meant that they would be considered to be part of groups like these, and they did not want this association.
So, we muddled along for a while, putting up our holders, installing our solar spinners, and getting as much window display as we could persuade shops to concede to. We had promotions on rolling machines, filter tips, and anything we could think of, to try to make the hand-rolling as similar to ready-made cigarettes as possible. Areas were ‘blitzed’ by promotional teams, and we even gave away small samples of tobacco, provided to us by the manufacturers, in the hope of steering people along the route of rolling for themselves. It still didn’t work.
Smoking increased, despite rises in taxation, and the ever increasing torrent of medical evidence against it. Unfortunately for us, rolling your own did not increase with it, and continued to fall in popularity. The company decided to diversify. When you have a product monopoly, it is very nice. However, if nobody wants that product any more, where do you turn?
In retrospect, they took the wrong turn, with the next strategy. A new range of products was commissioned, to bear the famous Rizla logo. These were very modern, and took the form of boxes to hold tobacco and papers, and up-to-the-minute rolling machines, created in armoured, textured plastic. They were black, very macho, and incredibly tactile. They would not look out of place in a minimalist designer interior, or gracing the ‘dashboard’ of Concorde. At first, the uptake was good. Shop managers and wholesalers liked them a lot, especially as we gave sales incentives, in the form of instant gifts, as they placed orders.
The problem was, that the public did not want them. They still didn’t want to change from conventional cigarettes, even if they could store their roll-ups in an ArmaLite box. As for those still rolling, they actually preferred their old battered tobacco tins, and would not be seen dead with such poncified alternatives. Another re-think was in order.
They decided to bring into operation a large mobile display unit. This would be towed around the country, and appear at showgrounds, and in town centres, or anywhere that a good crowd could be guaranteed. Attractive young women wearing Rizla sashes, would invite passersby to come into the unit, and try out hand rolling, with free tobacco samples, again provided by the manufacturers.
They also took space at various static exhibitions, and introduced a new line, totally unrelated to smoking, The Floating Candle. This was an eye-catching product, intended to draw crowds to the stand. It consisted of a set of small pressed plastic discs, with a protruding wick. Once floating, they appeared to disappear, giving the impression that the flame was floating unaided. Simply by applying a small layer of light cooking oil to water, they could burn for a considerable time, and could be used in almost any glass container, to very good effect. I worked the Ideal Home Exhibition stand in London that year. Long hours on your feet, very arduous, and incredibly repetitive. Despite living quite near London at the time, I was put up in an Earl’s Court Hotel, to be near the exhibition.
Surprisingly, the Floating Candles were a huge hit, selling like the proverbial hot cakes. Unfortunately, there was still little interest in the rolling papers, or the new range of accessories that we were also promoting.
Soon after, the representatives from all over the UK were called to a meeting in Pontypridd. We feared the worst, as despite our best efforts, we felt we had got nowhere. At the meeting, we sat around a huge table, presided over by the senior management. These men were stuck in the 1950’s, at a time when the rolling paper market was unassailable, and there seemed to be no possibility that it would ever decline. They did not sit comfortably with all the ‘new-fangled’ ideas trotted out by the marketing team, but had gone along with it, for fear that the whole business would collapse otherwise. They began the meeting by giving us some news. That news was surprising, to say the least.
They confirmed that sales of rolling tobacco were indeed down. Not only on the decline, but plummeting. The companies manufacturing these products had come to accept the inevitable, and were proposing to return to their traditional markets, and concentrate their advertising and promotions on keeping the hand-rollers that they still had. The surprising news for us, was that our sales of papers, of all types, had actually increased dramatically. There had been falls in the sale of filter tips, rolling machines and pouches. Also, the new products had failed to capture the imagination of the smokers, and were being scaled down as a result.
This left our company with a riddle. How was it, that paper sales were significantly increased, yet the tobacco that went in them was hardly selling at all? There was an interesting statistic given. On average, there are roughly two papers sold, for each cigarette rolled. This allowed for wastage, losing packets, and crumpling papers past the point to where they could still be used. The trend at that time showed a six to one differential in sales of papers to tobacco. This puzzled them; where were the other four papers going, and why were so many being sold to people who also bought conventional cigarettes?
I expect you know the answer to that one. I did then, but I was 21, not 60, like most of the managers. And it was 1973, in a Britain very different to the one we live in today. I was unsure whether or not to answer. Not only was I the most junior employee there, I was also the youngest, by at least ten years.
I bit the bullet, put my hand up, and when indicated to speak, I arranged some papers on the grand table before me, in the classic shape of the spliff. Five papers, no rolling tobacco required. I produced a cigarette from a packet in my coat, (this in itself was bordering on sacrilege, as though we were expected to smoke, we were also expected to be hand-rollers) split it along the middle, and spilled the contents onto the papers. I then tore the logo strip from a packet of papers, and rolled it into a ready-to use roach.
They were looking at me as if I had placed a magic trick on the wooden surface, eyes blank, no idea what I was about to say, or do. ‘It is marijuana’, I said, using a name that I thought they would recognise. ‘They need the papers to roll the joints, but they don’t smoke loose tobacco’. I continued, encouraged by silence from the end of the table. ‘If we really want to catch the trend, we ought to be considering the manufacture of a king size, or larger paper. They are producing them in America, and selling loads.’
There followed a muted discussion. The older men felt that this would associate the company with drugs. The younger group thought that a King Size product could take the whole concept up-market, and that we would be able to ignore any associated drug use, in the exact same way as arms manufacturers accept no responsibility for anyone actually firing their guns. They were excited at the prospect of severing traditional ties with the producers of the hand rolling tobacco. They even discussed modernising the logo, and introducing new colours on the packaging, all to appeal to the youth (read Drug) market.
I got a few strange looks. Some were undoubtedly worried about how I had come to this conclusion, and where I got my information from. I learned something about business that day though. They would never let a small thing like principles or potential law-breaking, get in the way of a good sales opportunity.
It was decided that I would be sent out, to get a feel for the market. Changing any aspect of the product, and possibly producing a larger paper, would involve monumental cost, in re-tooling machinery, as well as a huge increase in the advertising budget. At least they had their answer to the sales gap dilemma, and now they knew the reason, they determined to capitalise on it.
I went to the one place I could guarantee finding existing sellers of those kind of products, retailers known then, and now, as ‘head shops’. They stocked Asian ornaments, joss sticks, shisha pipes (decorative only of course) and numerous items sourced from the Far East. Portobello Road, at that time emerging as a trendy area, long before the Noting Hill Carnival, and a film starring Hugh Grant, was to bring it to the world stage. In one morning, on my first call into a shop, I had sufficient interest in a king size paper bearing the prestigious Rizla name, to get an order, on paper, for tens of thousands of boxes as soon as they were available. I had more positive reaction after other calls, but just the one day was needed, to prove my case.
Rizla was excited, but they were not about to hand over such an amount to one customer, as he would naturally begin to wholesale it, and end up dictating terms to them, instead of the other way round. They got the idea though, and could see the market. It was goodbye to trying to promote outdated hand-rolling. They would continue with their familiar good sellers, and start the whole process of branching out into this new, and possibly unlimited market that had presented itself. Like almost everything then, from burgers to Jumbo Jets, they were going up in size.
I left the company in 1974, as I have told in a previous post, to become a taxi driver, and to work for myself. I had a great time there, albeit a short one, and I was left with good memories. I got to see a lot of the UK, met some real characters, and encountered all the previously undiscovered cultural differences that make visiting other areas such an exploration. Rizla did introduce King Size papers eventually, in 1977, presumably after their re-tooling and market research was completed. Others already existed, imported from America, thicker, yellow in colour, with paper made from buckwheat.
Once Rizla got on the bandwagon, everyone else’s game was over.