The 1990s were definitely a time when the anti-smoking forces got the upper hand over the enemy for good. Airports became 95% no-smoking zones. In New York State, where I lived, Governor Mario Cuomo passed the New York Clean Indoor Air Act in 1990, which banned smoking in many environments, including stores, taxis, certain restaurants, schools, and most significantly, the majority of worksites. Once a normal smoker working at a normal job couldn’t smoke in the office, the jig was pretty much up. Years later came the stringent requirements in New York for separate and ventilated smoking facilities.
The change was especially evident in music venues. A thing that would have been scarcely imaginable in the 1980s—smoke-free music shows—became commonplace. In years to come, a single plume of smoke emanating from the middle of the hall would be noticed by every individual present.
With the advent of no-smoking signs and especially cancer warnings on cigarette packaging, a British entrepreneur named B.J. Cunningham spotted an opportunity to make a buck and also to be clever while doing it. In 1991 Cunningham started the Enlightened Tobacco Company—still have to chuckle at that name—which sold a product called Death Cigarettes with suitably doomy black packaging with white lettering and a skull and crossbones. The black packages contained the regulars, the white ones had Death Lights, jokingly referred to as Slow Death. The cigarettes themselves also had a demure little skull and crossbones on them.
Death Cigarettes founder B.J. Cunningham
Far from flinching at the “required” health warnings, Death Cigarettes positively reveled in them, with mordantly amusing messages like “It’s your funeral” and “Too bad, you’re gonna die.” One of their slogans was “The Grim Reaper, don’t come cheaper,” and posters for Death Cigarettes boldly bore the messages “SERIAL KILLER” and “BLOW YOURSELF AWAY.”
For the budding goth scene, the cigarettes were all but irresistible. British artist and illustrator Matt Lyon put it succinctly a few weeks ago:
“I’ve got fond memories of these from the early 90s. They soon became the cigarette of choice for shoegazers, goths and students alike, not least because of the packaging, but also their use of hemp paper and additive-free tobacco.”
They were healthier?
According to Persuasion in Advertising by John and Nicholas O’Shaughnessy, there were rumors of coffin-shaped vending machines in certain clubs. It would be great to corroborate that one—does anyone remember that?
The post-Internet generation that was coming up was arguably more health-conscious—maybe all that legislation had a positive effect—and Death Cigarettes failed to make it past the year 1999.
In 2015 the Hinterland Gallery in Kent, England, hosted an interesting exhibition on the product, featuring original advertising posters for Death Cigarettes as well as a remarkable Death Cigarettes-themed piano with “DANGER OF DEATH” stamped on the front.
This mug was once available on Etsy, but no longer: