Converse's Reviews > The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America
by Allan M. Brandt
bookshelves: history, medicine, non-fiction, politics
Harvard medical school professor Allan Brandt has written a history of the tobacco industry, focusing on the twentieth century and the United States. The first pages have some material relating to the earlier history of tobacco, and the final chapter is devoted to international developments, in particular the treaty on tobacco control developed by the World Health Organization. The epilogue is about his experience as an expert witness for the federal government in case against the industry.
At the start of the twentieth century, only a tiny proportion of those who used tobacco smoked cigarettes. Chewing tobacco was the most common use, followed by cigars and pipes. The rise in cigarette smoking greatly increased overall tobacco use while making cigarette use the most common way of consuming tobacco. As different cigarette brands are hard to distinguish from one another in blind "taste" tests, the manufactuers worked hard through advertising and promotions to develop brand loyalty. Later in the century they would adjust the content of the addictive chemical, nicotine, for the same reason. James Duke of the American Tobacco company was the first major adopter of the Bonsack machine, which made it possible in the late nineteenth century to mechanically produce cigarettes of similar quality to hand-produced cigarettes. The resulting plethora of cigarettes on Duke's hands pushed him to develop extensive marketing and advertising to sell his now abundant product. Despite his efforts, it was not until a little later, roughly during World War One, that cigarette smoking became ubiquitous.
For the next several decades, marketing was the core operation of a tobacco industry in which cigarettes were the most important revenue source. Marketing efforts were designed both to expand the market, such as by encouraging women to smoke, and to promote brand loyalty. The horrors of price competition were successfully avoided.
Shortly after World War Two, evidence linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer emerged from case control studies comparing those with lung cancer with otherwise similar individuals who did not suffer from the disease. The industry dealt with this problem by taking the stance that the evidence was not sufficient, by calling for further research, and by funding research on cancer (so as to look like responsible actors), while making sure such research did not focus directly on lung cancer. There was legitimate controversy over the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s, but as the decade went on, the most of the doubters tended to be the people who accepted industry money. The industry's stance on smoking and cancer was highly successful for decades, yet suffered from the disadvantage of locking it into a strait jacket. For example, efforts within the industry to develop less harmful cigarettes, or even self-extinguishing cigarettes to reduce fires, were always eventually suppressed by the industry lawyers because to carry out such research of course cast doubt on the notion that the risks of cigarette smoking were unproven.
The industry dealt skillfully with efforts to regulate it that began in the 1960s. The firms succeeded in making the first warning labels as bland as possible, got Congress to prevent regulatory agencies from taking any independent actions, and delayed the regulation of advertising. For many decades the industry also won repeatedly in court. Starting in the 1980s, embarrassing revelations came out through the discovery process in legal proceedings, without immediately causing the industry to lose cases. Even the huge settlements with the attorneys general of many states in the 1990s resulted in little more than, in effect, increased excise taxes on cigarettes (passed on to the consumers), while having the advantage of getting the states to take the company side in any litigation that might threaten the payments to the states.
Although generally clear, the author's prose sometimes reflects the unfortunate traits of an academic who mostly writes for other academics. Words such as "reified" and "objectified" make their appearance in paragraphs that add little to the reader's understanding. He also pussyfoots around the issue of how responsible smokers are for their own fate. If I correctly infer that Brandt believes them to have diminished responsibilty, I would say that he could have made his case better. In particular, more material about the nature of addiction, different definitions of addiction, and the degree to which nicotine is addictive (some comparisons with other drugs would be helpful here) are all called for. Still, I generally liked the book and found it interesting