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

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

Author:Allan M. Brandt
Release Date:2007
Publisher:Basic Books
Genre:Health, mind & body

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 6/6/2007

Cigarettes have wrought untold death, suffering, and litigation while worming ubiquitously into the international consciousness. The product's rise and staggered fall make for a flabbergasting story that has sired countless studies and articles. Histories keep hitting the shelves, too; the best include Richard Kluger's Ashes to Ashes: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris and Elizabeth Whelan's Cigarettes: What the Warning Label Doesn't Tell You: The First Comprehensive Guide to the Health Consequences of Smoking. Each treats the ongoing tale of tobacco-industry arrogance, stubbornness, and wanton disregard for humanity with a sarcastic verve; both were published in 1997. Allan M. Brandt's The Cigarette Century contributes an update to this cannon: namely, Big Tobacco documentation and memos knocked loose by litigatory actions in the decade since. The Harvard Medical School professor's writing is so damned dry and reiteration-crammed that he risks sucking the life out of his retelling; topical epigrams that open each chapter are as close as Brandt gets to cracking a sad smile or delving into the pop-culture feedback loop that helped legitimize smoking.

He methodically traces the cancer stick time line, from W. Duke Sons and Co.'s aggressive pioneering in the late 19th century to the Voltron-like formation and subsequent "dispersion" of the powerful American Tobacco Trust to early morality-based opposition. Smoke filled the far-off theatres of both world wars as shipping cartons to soldiers overseas became a civic duty. "The camaraderie of war came to be symbolized in the sharing of a cigarette, a new commodity of morale," Brandt writes. Canny advertisers in Big Tobacco's employ trumpeted the products' supposed medicinal virtues and, in nifty, divide-and-conquer style, exploited gender, racial, and class struggles to enlarge their captive constituencies. Execs flat-earthed hard when confronted with evidence proving the addictive and destructive properties of cigarettes, denying and obfuscating for decades--until class-action lawyers discovered rhetorical cracks allowing them to steadily chip away at their coffers and the public and private smoking areas, a process that continues today. In the face of governmental pressure, the industry is eagerly exporting its wares to new promised lands: China, India, Vietnam, and beyond.

Trouble is, only the hopelessly naive and delusional truly believed--or still believe--that tobacco companies are ignorant of smoking's dangers; Century merely confirms all this. Brandt makes the point himself: "More than one in five Americans still smoke regularly, and today tobacco still kills 435,000 U.S. citizens each year (more than HIV, alcohol, illicit drugs, suicide, and homicide combined)."

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