The Cigarette Century

Allan M. Brandt, professor of the history of medicine at Harvard Medical School, spent twenty years working on The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America, largely drawing on tobacco industry internal documents that have become available on the Internet. The cigarette companies have managed to confuse the American people about the hazards of cigarettes for much of the twentieth century, and Brandt’s history clarifies much of what has been going on. His study can be dry and technical in places, but it benefits from the intrigues of a thoroughly wily and unethical industry that often manages to turn challenges to its advantage. Brandt does not show much interest in pursuing the case for cigarettes, such as the pleasures they might bring, but readers can understand his angle once they know more about the way that manufacturers have manipulated the meaning of cigarettes throughout the twentieth century. Aside from undermining its propaganda, Brandt’s study also explores the way the industry has had a broad impact on American culture, corporate practices, regulatory policies, and law, in some ways anticipating major shifts in modern life, what Brandt calls “the historical interplay of culture, biology, and disease.”

Brandt begins his book by discussing America’s long relationship with tobacco that goes back to Native American use predating the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Once colonization began, Europeans quickly adopted the habit of pipe or cigar smoking, so that the crop of the New World eventually had worldwide impact. King James I wrote one of the earliest warning treatises against tobacco, yet demand continued to grow. By the nineteenth century, cigarettes were still a marginal curiosity compared to cigars or chewing or pipe tobacco, but industry pioneer James Buchanan Duke figured out how to profit from mass-produced cigarettes using the Bonsack machine. Duke also helped invent modern advertising techniques by including collectors’ cards in each pack. By 1887, he had figured out how to buy out American competitors to keep monopoly control over his growing industry, and he did the same thing in Europe. Even though he was enormously successful, Duke never fully understood the lucrative potential of cigarettes, since he continued to heavily invest in other tobacco products, but his rapaciously effective business techniques set the standard for the industry in the century following. When the U.S. government tried to break up Duke’s monopoly with the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the government, as Brandt puts it, “merely put an oligopoly in its place,” consisting of the American Tobacco Company, R. J. Reynolds, and others.

By the twentieth century, various historical and cultural changes boosted American interest in cigarettes in ways that the tobacco companies were happy to capitalize on. For instance, during the two world wars, people saw cigarettes as one way to give soldiers a pleasant break on the battlefield, with the dangers of getting killed dwarfing any health concerns. Women, meanwhile, associated cigarette smoking with women’s liberation. Also, young people related cigarette consumption to adult status, so smoking started to reach record levels in the United States by the 1930’s and 1940’s. Through the use of advertising and good product placement in movies, the cigarette industry managed to get people to associate smoking with glamour, beauty, freedom, leisure, and modernity. Since the negative effects of usage often take about twenty years to manifest in a smoker, it was not until the 1950’s that medical studies came out that associated cigarettes with cancer. In the meantime, cigarette manufacturers promoted brand awareness, since there were few real differences between cigarette brands.

By the late 1940’s, scientists determined that lung cancer had vastly increased in accordance with the number of smokers. Using epidemiological studies, they began to establish a clear link between smoking and cancer, but it was difficult to prove the connection using laboratory techniques since such techniques would entail keeping humans in controlled conditions for much of their lives. Scientists also found increased cancer rates for mice exposed to smoke. When the scientific studies were translated to a Reader’s Digest article entitled “Cancer by the Carton,” the tobacco industry had to react, and it did so by engineering a brilliant public relations campaign. The industry allayed public anxieties about smoking hazards by including many doctors in advertisements. Also, by employing the public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton, tobacco executives started a “collaborative research entity,” the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC), which would sponsor its own scientific research in order to give the appearance of responding responsibly to the health threat that their...

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Booklist 103, no. 13 (March 1, 2007): 47.

The Economist 382 (March 17, 2007): 89.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 5 (March 1, 2007): 202.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (May 6, 2007): 10.

Science 316 (May 4, 2007): 692-693.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 28, 2007, pp. 7-9.

The Washington Post, March 18, 2007, p. BW03.