Buying a pack of smokes used to be easy in Syria, especially affordable brands like Gulouse and Elegence. Those with more money identified more with luxury brands such as Marlboro.
As the war changed people’s circumstances and prices rose, those varieties became rarer and harder to find. Marlboros are now up to 2000 S.L ($4) per pack, which is barely affordable for the most affluent Syrians. More and more people are searching for cheaper alternatives as a kind of savings.
Returning to the past
Looking for the cheapest kinds of cigarettes is not unique for those still inside Syria. Refugees, too, are struggling with the same limitations. Syrians that escaped have resorted to the older, less prestigious method of rolling tobacco by hand. Indeed, Arabic rolling techniques have seen a revival recently.
Rami, a 20 year old man studying law in Damascus, talked about his experience saying that “This old renewed tobacco rolling helps me save more. It is not easy at all to pay 100 S.L. every day to buy smokes. War taught us to find solutions for every dilemma, and to beat today’s prices we returned to Arabic rolling.”
Rami cited certain advantages to rolling tobacco. “This helps you to quit smoking or reduce the quantity every day because it needs effort, even if you can use a machine.” He continues, “I used to smoke three cigarettes an hour. Now I smoke one in an hour, or even every other hour.”
Enab Baladi recently surveyed smokers in Damascus. This survey revealed that many Syrians find the old, hand-rolled cigarettes are now preferred over the modern brands. The markets have noticed, with familiar brands such as Winshester, Master, Manchestrter, and Jakore producing products similar to the hand-rolled varieties. These are familiar brands but are different in quality and price. Young men now opt for these brands, which cause their families disapproval and discontent.
Syrians that have fled the country are finding similar experiences to those still inside the country. Prices of cigarettes in Europe, Turkey, and neighboring areas are expensive relative to the their income, which forces them, too, to find alternatives.
Hassan is from Dara’a city and is now living in Turkey. “When I came to Turkey through the free market in Beirut,” he says, “I brought many boxes of cigarettes from Syria which was my friend’s advice to avoid the rising prices in Turkey.” The amount he brought, though, was not enough and disappeared quickly before he got a job. Even then he couldn’t afford to buy cigarettes at 10 T.L ($3) per pack. Hassan converted to rolling, which has taught him patience and given him a step towards quitting. “I was happy,” Hassan continued, “because I started to save money and reduce smoking daily, and one kilo of tobacco is enough for more than one month or two.”
In Turkey, smokers spend huge portions of their income on tobacco. The cheapest is almost 5T.L (less than $2). The smoker needs at least one box for two days, which means 150T.L or $50 monthly. By returning to rolling, he needs only $35.
Syria as a whole smokes roughly 70 tons or tobacco per day. Local production covers 50 tons, with the remainder brought in by smugglers.
Basically, according to those surveyed, smokers can choose to either spend up to $8 on a pack of cigarettes, or slightly less for a supply of rolling tobacco that will last the average smoker about two months.