Robert Amass, a bartender at Catbirds, shows off his new Camel Zippo lighter in its case. "That's real pewter. I just got this one. They got all kinds of Zippos."
It goes further than that. In a moment of self-analysis, he glances down, then reveals: "All my clothes say either liquor or beer or cigarettes on them, or the bar name."
Amass's loyalty has not been bought only with clothes, lighters and cigarettes, but with the funds for the advertisements that kept his club competitive. "It didn't really matter what I smoked before, but now I get Camels free. Even when I buy a pack, usually I'll buy Camels. Camel kind of saved this place."
Camel has been busy saving places -- bars -- around Houston. Salvation is also available from the competition, Marlboro. The dueling cigarette companies offer financial support in return for clear and complete rights to slap their logo on pretty much everything inside those bars, from the full-sized wall murals down to the drink stirrers.
Over the past year, tobacco money has eclipsed alcohol money in helping Houston bars pay for advertising, even providing bar supplies and paying bands. Deprived of traditional advertising venues, the tobacco industry has focused on bars and clubs to fill the air with their brand names. The glorification of the connection between music, bar patrons and smoking has been encapsulated in tobacco advertising aimed at club customers.
Camel was first with "The Hard Pack" -- ads intended to associate cartoon camels with musicians. These camels dressed like musicians and carried instruments, played pool, drove around and smoked a lot. Next came the direct marketing: Kamel Reds were sold directly in special display cases in bars.
Marlboro has joined in, and the two companies have divided up Houston-area bars, providing napkins, matches, coasters, advertising, full wall murals and even obtaining tobacco sales licenses for the bars.
Of course, what bar owners view as a life saver is seen in a different light by many on the anti-tobacco side.
Other brands have joined the hunt as well. Kool has sponsored the Kool Jazz Festival in New Orleans for years and now sponsors the traveling H.O.R.D.E. Festival. Phillip Morris even started a record label called "Woman Thing" to release recordings by the soap-opera star, Virginia Slims endorser and attempted pop-singer crossover Martha Byrne. How could they refuse a smoking spokesperson with a name pronounced "burn"?
The local band Moses Guest got involved with the Kool H.O.R.D.E. promotions when they won a "Band to Band Combat" competition and were allowed to play in a slot for unsigned bands. James Edwards, the drummer, sees sponsorship as a necessary evil. "You can pick your poison. It could have been Jack Daniels, Kool, the milk industry."
The band received $1,000, T-shirts, an advertising budget for its next ten shows and, as Edwards sees it, had to do essentially nothing in return except fly a Kool banner. "They've done a lot of good for us."
The tobacco companies have made a few offers to people who refused them. Salem made a mistake by buying advertising rights on Richard Marx's South Asia tour without his knowledge. Marx followed this by coming out on stage wearing a "Salem sucks" T-shirt.
Woman Thing made a bad move when they offered a deal to Leslie Nuchow. They had to explain to her a few times that her CD on their "label" would be available only to consumers who had sent in two cigarette coupons. She didn't seem to understand. After rejecting the offer, she was inspired to initiate the "Virginia Slam" concert series, which has grown to feature groups such as the Indigo Girls.
"No matter what they say about targeting to adults, they know that young women go to hear music in much larger numbers than older women. If a person has not started smoking by the time they are 19, there is a 90 percent chance that they will never smoke," she says.
Tommy Bryant, a bartender at Instant Karma, sees the same thing in the club. "They're not going into a market where the people are 30 years old; they're going where the kids are 18 or 19 and dumping free cigarettes in their lap."
But the booking agents and bartenders are, for the most part, very happy to have the financial support. Art Baez, booking agent at Instant Karma, can't imagine being in business without it. "The clubs that are alive right now are the ones that have cigarette sponsors. We don't have to buy cups, napkins, matches, coasters, and we get free advertising on the Camel Page." The "Camel Page" and various Marlboro pages appear in the Houston Press and many other newspapers and magazines, giving an advantage to clubs that agree to sponsorship.
Baez sees the tobacco companies as making a simple decision to go after one of their last potential markets. "I think they're just looking to associate smoking with being cool, so they do it where most people think they are cool, out at clubs."
Camel has contracted KBA Marketing, a Chicago-based company, to handle all the details of the deals with bars. KBA even puts out its own magazine, Sweater, which is "free in cool places." Sweater provides articles about music and a guide to clubs in various cities [the same "cool places" that have signed Camel-cigarette promotion contracts with KBA]. A survey/sweepstakes in a recent issue of Sweater asks questions such as, "Do you smoke?" and "Are you currently a full-time student? If so, which level? High school? College? Grad school?"
The mailing-list signups also exist in the clubs, perhaps preparing for a time in which tobacco advertisers will have to rely on direct mail to registered smokers to spread their message.
Does the advertising work? Well, even Baez has to admit, "I used to smoke Marlboro Lights when I first worked here; I smoke Camel Lights now."
Sandy Balboa, a bartender there, is still holding out with Marlboros despite all the pressure.
"They jumped my ass, because in the contract it says you will not have any other brand behind the counter. Well, I'm making it sound like an attack, and it wasn't, but the rep did say, 'Please, I've told you before.' "
Balboa has watched KBA reps switch packs at Instant Karma, and at Cecil's, where she was also a bartender.
"They turn in the packs that they take for Brownie points. Somebody comes up to you and says, 'Do you smoke? Well, here, why don't you try this pack?' It's a big difference between seeing an advertisement to having a rep right in front of you."
One business owner who put a foot down over the issue was Bill Sadler of the Blue Agave (formerly the Moose Cafe). Despite the goodwill toward tobacco generated by the freebies among his smoking employees and customers, the whole thing turned him off a bit.
"I didn't mind providing cigarettes to people who wanted them, but this program was kinda reaching out aggressively."
Still, Sadler experienced nothing but graciousness from the KBA reps, even when he was calling to tell them he wanted out of the contract.
Eric Solberg, of Houston's Doctors Ought to Care (DOC), sees reasons other than pure advertisement for the monetary connection between tobacco companies and clubs.
"This comes at a time when some of the largest cities, like New York and L.A., passed smoking ordinances that restrict or prohibit smoking in bars. So it's not an accident. It was planned to push promotional dollars into the bar scenes. It helps them defeat proposed ordinances, because they get the bars on their side. And secondly, they get terrific audiences for their products."
DOC has been fighting tobacco for 21 years, but even Solberg has to admit he is impressed by the marketing strategies of firms such as KBA that market cigarettes.
"These are the most creative marketing geniuses on the planet. To study the history of cigarette advertising and to monitor it is like getting a Ph.D. in advertising."
California passed a law against giving away free cigarettes, so instead, the tobacco companies gave away free coupons for cigarettes. Laws have restricted where and how tobacco can be advertised, so tobacco companies give away T-shirts and hats, creating walking billboards out of the lucky winners, who might walk into any hospital, Chuck E. Cheese or playground and spread the word.
Solberg's partner, Dr. Alan Blum, has spent 32 years monitoring tobacco and protesting and speaking about it. He sees the advertising as exactly what the public wants.
"The industry has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations in re-creating the glamour and allure of the cigarette. And they've done it in an open way. They've acceded to every demand not to go after kids. They're saying, 'Fine, we're going to be more sophisticated.' They've done what everyone is demanding."
Blum, however, is becoming suspicious of his own side of the struggle. He finds problems with the anti-tobacco movement that go beyond ineffectiveness. "The anti-smoking industry has become as corrupt as the tobacco industry because it's not about fighting smoking anymore, it's about getting tobacco industry money."
What he is referring to is the strange outcome of Texas's recently negotiated tobacco settlement. Anti-smoking groups are now able to line up to get some of the money that tobacco companies have pledged to pay. Furthermore, points out Blum, state Attorney General Dan Morales has effectively "made the state and anti-smoking programs dependent on future profits of the tobacco industry. If the tobacco companies were to go out of business, they couldn't get this money. There's an irony there; it borders on hypocrisy."
Although all the nightclub employees are used to seeing reps from KBA Marketing drinking in their clubs several times a week, and are quite friendly with them, the reps aren't willing to give out interviews.
When one rep at Catbirds was told the Press was having a hard time getting anyone from KBA to interview, he smiled and said: "Well, basically, that's the way it's gonna be," before quickly heading out the door.
RJ Reynolds spokeswoman Carole Crosslan was willing to answer some questions about the program. She says the Camel bar program has been going since 1994 and now operates in 26 cities. She sees the program as a success at reaching smokers over the age of 21. When asked if this was a shift from earlier marketing efforts to teenagers -- something revealed during the tobacco lawsuits -- she responded: "There has never been a marketing program to communicate with underage smokers."
Crosslan sent a piece of e-mail to reiterate this point and also to make the comment that "Leveraging our partnerships with bar owners to fight smoking bans is not the goal of or reason for the Camel Club program. In one instance, we did communicate with Houston bar owners for two reasons: to make them aware of potential smoking-ban legislation and to encourage them to voice their opinion if they were interested in doing so."
One local advocate of anti-smoking ordinances is Tobacco Free Houston. Originally, the group's intention was to eliminate smoking from public places entirely. That didn't get through City Council without compromise after tobacco lobbyists made their pitches. Now the group is attempting to at least cut down smoking in restaurants, hotels and live-music clubs.
James Knight, the leader of the group, quotes independent surveys by Austin's Teleresources as showing that Houstonians not only favor smoking bans, but think they would go out more often to bars and restaurants if the ban were in place. He sees the ordinance as a threat to $26 million per year in cigarette sales, something tobacco lobbyists are not going to surrender lightly.
And those lobbyists have a lot of influence, he says. Knight says he keeps a list of the 20 lobbyists who lobby in Washington for the city of Houston, and says that half of them also work for tobacco companies.
In this escalating battle, almost no one -- the bars, the bands, even the anti-tobacco groups -- is free from the reach of the tobacco dollars.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.