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The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America

by Allan M. Brandt (Author)



Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Once so acceptable that even Emily Post approved, cigarette
smoking is an integral part of American history and culture, as demonstrated in
this highly readable, exhaustively researched book: the cigarette's "remarkable
success ... as well as its ignominious demise ... fundamentally demonstrates the
historical interplay of culture, biology, and disease." Brandt, Havard Medical
School's Amalie Moses Kass Professor of the History of Medicine, explores the
impact and meaning of cigarettes, from cultural, scientific, political and legal
standpoints. Particularly fascinating (and shocking) is the scientific
community's struggle to prove the harmful effects of smoking, even as scientists
found, "in 1946, that lung cancer cases had tripled over the previous three
decades." As any contemporary history of tobacco must, the narrative becomes a
tale of the lies, deceit and eventual public exposure of Big Tobacco. But, the
author warns, it's too soon for the ever-growing anti-smoking contingent to
think they've beaten the industry: Big Tobacco is busy selling cigarettes to
developing countries, threatening "a global pandemic of tobacco-related diseases
that is nothing short of colossal." Though the industry can't be stopped, Brandt
says, "understanding the history of cigarettes may be a small but important
element in ... knowing their dangers and having strategies for their control";
fortunately, this rigorous history has that first step covered.

From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
Reviewed by Bryan Burrough
Recent years have seen a flurry of what might be called "inanimate" biographies
-- that is, books devoted to the life of a thing rather than a person. Salt got
one, cod, too, even some naughty words. While I admire the scholarship that goes
into these studies, they tend to leave me a bit flat. I mean, it's the rare cod
that battled the Boers alongside Winston Churchill or ate fried eggs off Ava
Gardner's chest. And while I love a heaping spoon of Morton's as much as the
next guy, no matter how you shake it, salt will simply never own up to losing
its virginity to the upstairs maid. By their very nature, these books can come
off as bloodless digests of minutiae. Given a choice between Kitty Kelley's
latest and A Brief History of the Booger, I'd hold my nose and pick the Kelley.
You'd have to.

Next up: the cigarette. In The Cigarette Century, Allan M. Brandt, a Harvard
Medical School professor with a very long and impressive job title, does a nice
job of putting Kools and Salems on the couch. The tobacco industry has become
well-worn territory for authors and journalists, but Brandt, an expert witness
in a number of anti-tobacco lawsuits, enlivens a familiar story by scanning with
the widest possible lens, easily unbundling and reassembling the narrative
threads of the cigarette's rise and mid-career flameout.

It's all here: the Marlboro Man's drug-fueled orgies with Ravi Shankar, Joe
Camel slapping Elizabeth Taylor that night at the Palm. Okay, okay, I made those
up. The book actually doesn't go anywhere near Elizabeth Taylor, which is too
bad, but Brandt manages to weave all the diverse elements of the cigarette's
history -- medical research, advertising, lawsuits, public relations, corporate
intrigue -- into a surprisingly unified narrative. It's a good story, well told.
Most inanimate biographies score or flop on their success at delivering two
things: memorable minor characters -- the president who downed 17 cod every
morning for breakfast, the sultan who built an empire on salt -- and especially
the "Honey-you've-got-to-read-this" detail. In my experience, you need at least
one of these forehead-slapping factoids every five pages to keep the cod-curious
reader interested. By and large, Brandt rates an A-minus on the detail, maybe a
C-plus on the minor characters. His people, from the turn-of-the-century tobacco
monopolist Buck Duke to the latter-day apologists who sweat before Mike Wallace,
could use more flesh on their bones.

The modern cigarette, Brandt reminds us, was born in the late 19th century but
for the longest time remained the industry's neglected stepchild. Chewing
tobacco (also known by its technical name, God This Stuff Is Gross) and even
pipe tobacco sold better. Hand-rolled cigarettes cost too much to make and sold
for too little to justify greater investment. Besides, the dowdy matrons
bustling around the country decrying the use of alcohol tended to moonlight at
decrying cigarettes as tiny engines of filth, sexual depravity and downward
mobility. All in all, the death merchants of yore judged cigarettes more trouble
than they were worth.

But then came rolling machines. For the first time, cigarettes could be made for
pennies apiece, and at that point no one much cared about the naysayers. (Did
you know that 16 states briefly outlawed cigarettes in the 1920s? Liar.) In the
1910s, Big Tobacco all but created national advertising to peddle Lucky Strikes
and other brands. Still, cigarette use didn't catch fire until -- bing!
memorable detail! -- World War I, when American soldiers found a cheap smoke the
perfect way to unwind after a tough day in the trenches. Doughboys so craved
cigarettes that -- bing bing bing! -- the YMCA handed them out for free. By the
Great Depression, an avalanche of ad campaigns had transformed the cigarette
into an easily recognized symbol of both male virility and female liberation.
The rest, as they say, is cancer. The golden age of the cigarette during the
1930s and '40s -- think Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca," Lauren Bacall in
anything -- was followed in short order by the downbeat news that rates of lung
cancer, a heretofore all-but-unknown malady, were skyrocketing. Here Brandt
confronts the elephant in his narrative kitchen. The outrage many Americans felt
during the 1990s, when internal industry documents exposed Big Tobacco's
Machiavellian strategies to subvert the science of lung cancer, is no longer
fresh. If Brandt can't make the reader feel that outrage again, he's headed to
the showers.

Well, he does it. Big time. I defy anyone to read the middle chapters of The
Cigarette Century, the ones that detail the foundation of the Tobacco Institute
and the industry's efforts to muddy scientific waters, and not come away with a
burning need to drive down to North Carolina and find someone to throttle. Or
Madison Avenue. Among the many villains Brandt skillfully waterboards are
executives at the public relations giant Hill & Knowlton, which during the 1950s
single-handedly orchestrated Big Tobacco's campaign to undermine anti-smoking
advocates and scientists up to and including the surgeon general. No lie was too
big to tell, no bit of pseudo-science too ridiculous to pass off as legitimate.
Parents, if you have teenagers considering a career in p.r., have them read this
first. I can't remember the last time I read a more scathing indictment of
corporate malfeasance.

One thing that surprised me about The Cigarette Century is how well it's
written, given that the author is, well, a college professor. Whether he's
describing laboratory work or the intricacies of a lawsuit, Brandt seldom lets
the story drag; he has a fine sense of what detail to use and when to stop using
it. The worst that can be said is that the book feels "textbooky" in spots,
which is probably to be expected given that Brandt is a Harvard lecturer and not
Christopher Buckley. The Cigarette Century isn't exactly beach reading, but for
anyone interested in tobacco, public relations, medicine or law, I promise you
won't miss Ravi Shankar. Well, maybe a little.


Product Details

Hardcover: 600 pages
Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (March 12, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0465070477

 

 

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