"they were never meant to be smoked in the first place."
October 2, 2012 11:16 PM   Subscribe

Cigarettes: The Most Stable International Currency. In China, expensive cigarettes (not to be confused with counterfeits of popular brands) are sometimes used as bribes. Cash can be difficult to handle, or outright illegal, in some places. Since a smoking ban (and subsequent black-market trade in cigarettes) in US prisons, canned mackerel (previously on MetaFilter) has become the exchange medium of choice.

While cigarettes and mackerel are forms of commodity money, it seems the fish gets used because nobody wants to eat it.

R.A. Radford: The Economic Organization of a POW Camp
We reached a transit camp in Italy about a fortnight after capture and received one-quarter of a Red Cross food parcel each a week later. At once exchanges, already established, multiplied in volume. Starting with simple direct barter, such as a nonsmoker giving a smoker friend his cigarette issue in exchange for a chocolate ration, more complex exchanges soon became an accepted custom. Stories circulated of a padre who started off round the camp with a tin of cheese and five cigarettes and returned to his bed with a complete parcel in addition to his original cheese and cigarettes; the market was not yet perfect. Within a week or two, as the volume of trade grew, rough scales of exchange values came into existence. Sikhs, who had at first exchanged tinned beef for practically any other foodstuff, began to insist on jam and margarine. It was realised that a tin of jam was worth one-half pound of margarine plus something else; that a cigarette issue was worth several chocolate issues, and a tin of diced carrots was worth practically nothing.
Peter R. Senn: Cigarettes As Currency (JSTOR and Wiley Online)
Usually cigarettes were sold for Reichsmarks, which at that time could be exchanged by American and British soldiers for pounds or dollars ... Large pound and dollar profits were made in many cases
posted by the man of twists and turns (31 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Canned mackerel is only ok as part of another dish. I use it with canned diced tomatoes, and canned garbanzos and sliced onion.pit that over white rice. Even then, it gives you rank smelling bowel movements. In a prison environment, this us NOT a plus
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:30 PM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Kent cigarettes were big in Romania as exchange before the Changes.
posted by Isadorady at 11:47 PM on October 2, 2012

Ummm. I see you knew that..Must not misuse the new Edit feature. Must not misuse...
posted by Isadorady at 11:50 PM on October 2, 2012

I notice that upon closer reading, stamps appear to be the favored medium of exchange in American prisons. In atonement:

NYTimes, 2 October 1862: Post-Office Stamps As Currency
quite time some effective steps were taken to stop the use of postage stamps as currency. They never were fit for such a purpose, though in the absolute dearth of small change they have been of some service to the business community. But currency, to answer any good end, must have some essential value.
Statement of City Postmaster Wakeman in Reference to Defaced Postage Stamps.
Numerous letters, critical and advisory, friendly and denunciatory, have recently been received at this office in regard to regulations of the Post-office Department respecting postage stamps.

Time will not permit me to reply to them in detail. I beg leave, therefore, to submit the following statement, which it is believed, will explain the various points raised.
During the US Civil War, postal currency was issued to supplement coinage that was being hoarded.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:54 PM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mackerel is an oily fish and top predator, thus high in omega-3. According to the NRDC, Spanish and Gulf mackerel are in the "high" mercury category, King is in the "highest", while North Atlantic mackerel is "low". Spanish, King and Gulf mackerel are native off the coasts of the eastern USA and Gulf of Mexico, they can grow to large size and there are a lot of them. They sort of act as filters for coal plant emissions, along with swordfish and other big old top predators. Never seen North Atlantic mackerel, maybe you can buy them somewhere.
posted by stbalbach at 11:55 PM on October 2, 2012

Gives a whole new meaning to "got any salmon?"
posted by iotic at 1:08 AM on October 3, 2012

Smoking is banned in US prisons? That's rough.
posted by sophist at 1:12 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by Dr Dracator at 1:53 AM on October 3, 2012

Instant coffee is also sometimes used as currency in prisons. That would not be my money of choice, given that I would drink it all.

I vote mackerel.
posted by murfed13 at 2:22 AM on October 3, 2012

I was told that when smoking was banned at Cook County jail, the currency became Honey Buns, which were already quite popular. Not in the top ten for systematic abuse of the incarcerated, but still pretty gross.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:33 AM on October 3, 2012

Huh, so in prison, mack is cheese.
posted by rh at 2:50 AM on October 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

"Some outraged users wrote that they could easily live for a whole month for the price of a single cigarette."

I'm not a smoker, but a quick trip to the google tells me that there are 200-400 cigarettes in a carton, which would make each cigarette worth up to ~$5. Minimum wage in China seems to be between $100-$200 USD per month, so methinks somebody is exaggerating just a little.
posted by KGMoney at 3:22 AM on October 3, 2012

James Noble's King Rat describes the internal economy of Changi Prison in WW2 in great detail.

money to burn if I step outside to light up this currency?
posted by infini at 4:12 AM on October 3, 2012

Not sure about where you are but not every pack has 20 cigarettes: there's economy brands with 25 or even 30, and premium brands with funky pack geometries that I guess could hold a different number. After a tax hike some years ago I remember one brand floated a 10 cigarette pack, but I don't think it lived long.
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:45 AM on October 3, 2012

Fun Fact: you can't ship cigarettes via USPS. Not even Chinese ones!

Or via UPS or FedEx or any normal way, really. I used to do graphic design work for a small subsidiary of a large Native American company, and the parent company lost a lot of money when that rule came down, the mail order cigarette business was huge for some tribes
posted by jason_steakums at 6:09 AM on October 3, 2012


I wonder, the man of twists and turns, if using stamps as change in such a way as to not destroy them was another reason to use change envelopes?

Maybe not. But small change packets could probably also be used to give to the poor without dirtying your hands with the small money or with touching the beggar ... only the envelope.

posted by tilde at 6:12 AM on October 3, 2012

ObFantasy: Stamps as currency is a minor plot point in Terry Pratchett's Going Postal.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:33 AM on October 3, 2012

I don't recall any of those ever gifting me with extra squares in the pack.

Never went for the super-cheap ones myself (not in the USA, by the way), but judging from the few I've bummed I don't think they are giving anything away: the cigarettes in the oversize packs are slightly shorter than average, and with a longer filter - probably spreading the same amount of tobacco thinner, to appeal to cost-conscious consumers.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:34 AM on October 3, 2012

Dr Dracator: Not sure about where you are but not every pack has 20 cigarettes: there's economy brands with 25 or even 30, and premium brands with funky pack geometries that I guess could hold a different number. After a tax hike some years ago I remember one brand floated a 10 cigarette pack, but I don't think it lived long.

Indeed, not every pack of cigarettes contains 20 smokes - you get 10s and 14s here in the UK, and I seem to recall Winfields in Hong Kong existing in packs of 25. 20s are far and away the most common, though.

However, the 'carton' of cigarettes is more or less a standard unit, universally containing 10 packs of 20 cigarettes (I have never met a brand that didn't at least also come in packs of 20).
posted by Dysk at 8:36 AM on October 3, 2012

I've known about it for years, but I still don't full understand the canned mackerel thing. Cigarettes made sense as currency because they held some real value for at least some inmates. Canned fish that nearly everyone agrees tastes awful and which can't be "cashed in" when you leave prison? I don't know. I mean, I understand it in the abstract sense (currency tends, after all, to be merely a symbolic representation of value in modern societies; paper money rather than a gold coin with $5 worth of gold in it, etc.), but it still confuses the hell out of me.

Why canned mackerel? OK, because no one wants to it eat it and that means that you pretty much have to use it as currency, as per one of the FPP links. But, then, by that logic, why cigarettes -- they'd be smoked as well as used as currency. Were cigarettes, therefore, actually an inferior currency when compared to "the mack?"

Does this comment from the Economist post explain the reason for using mackerel better than the Economist article itself?
posted by asnider at 8:37 AM on October 3, 2012

In Canada, back when I smoked, the default cigarette pack size was 25, and a carton contained 8 packs (still 200 cigarettes). Sometimes people would get packs with the flip top that held 20 (like you see most other places in the world), but our weird slide-out 25-packs were far more common.

Judging by roadside garbage, this still seems to be the case.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:04 AM on October 3, 2012

My boyfriend spent 5 months in prison a few years ago. He kept a small handheld radio that he bought as souvenier. It cost "15 noodle soups".
posted by WeekendJen at 9:28 AM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've never seen a pack of "Export A" cigarettes in anything other than 25; they are from Canada and are also slightly shorter.
posted by nTeleKy at 9:31 AM on October 3, 2012

Sardines are vastly superior to canned Mackerel, poor prisoners.
posted by Harpocrates at 10:20 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

One suspects that the appeal of canned mackerel is the protein -- when doing time, a fellow is liable to be especially health conscious.

I also imagine that the canned mackerel is oft treated to a trip through the microwave (or atop a radiator) where it is heavily dosed with something like onion salt, which is said to be a major culinary requirement in the round-stock hotel, American cheese, or perhaps ramen noodles.

My own experience with prison food is limited to one lunch -- I was chaperoning at a scared straight-type program -- and the food was inoffensive but very boring. I never would've guessed that the entree was a cheese steak sandwich. It struck me more as blackened nuggets of C-grade beef served with a piece of bread. Anyhow, I can believe that one becomes inured to some rather crude cuisine over the course of a couple decades.
posted by mr. digits at 3:28 PM on October 3, 2012

One suspects that the appeal of canned mackerel is the protein

Except that, according to at least one of the links in the FPP, almost no one actually eats the mack. A few of the more hardcore weightlifting inmates will eat it for the protein, but almost no one actually eats it.

I never would've guessed that the entree was a cheese steak sandwich. It struck me more as blackened nuggets of C-grade beef served with a piece of bread.

I have heard that, to save money, most prison meat is mixed with TVP (which is a mostly flavourless soy protein that does wonders as a bland filler with ground or sliced meat; it can be seasoned and made to taste almost like real meat, but I suspect they're not making great efforts to do so in the prison kitchen). So, yeah, it's probably low grade meat mixed with soy.
posted by asnider at 3:37 PM on October 3, 2012

Yeah, in Canada we have "regulars" which have a shorter filter and slightly shorter tube but are the regular diameter which come in slide-out packs with 12 in one compartment and 13 in the other in addition to "kings" which are the near universal normal cigarette size and come in flip-top hardpacks of 20.

iirc some brands at some point in time also offered kings in packs of 25 (and cartons containing 8 packs).

Used to smoke Export "A" green kings in highschool - the equivalent regular was a lot harsher for an already pretty harsh cig because of the shorter filter.

I think regulars are a bit more popular out East or among the older crowd.

As for Kents being (formerly?) popular in Romania, during the early 90's they seemed to be a premium cig in HK (and iirc was a pretty prominent sponsor/advertiser).

I've had some premium Chinese cigarettes and they can be pretty damned nice smokes, although the fancy packaging and flashy paper/filter-paper felt a bit weird. Even smoother than English Dunhill Internationals and I normally smoke Canadian Dunhills.
posted by porpoise at 4:56 PM on October 3, 2012

Interesting that Canadian "king size" cigarettes are what is considered normal in the rest of the world. I assumed they were larger.

Also, since we're all taking about what we smoked: I was never a regular smoker, but for some reason I remember my father's smokes despite the fact that he hasn't smoked in years: Craven A Special Mild King Size.
posted by asnider at 8:56 AM on October 4, 2012

Player Heavy Cut. Pack a whallop.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:01 AM on October 4, 2012

I quit about 10 years ago, so my info is definitely outdated, but back then you had your choice of just about every brand in regular or king in slide-out packs of 25. For example I had a friend who smoked DuMaurier light kings, in the slide-out pack. Another smoked Rothmans king size, also slide-out. 20-packs were less common, at least here in Alberta.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:20 PM on October 4, 2012

Well, this thread has taught me one interesting thing I did not know before: Canada has different cigarette pack size conventions to the rest of the world, it seems.
posted by Dysk at 5:50 AM on October 5, 2012

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