The Cigarette Century

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Allan M. Brandt. The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America. New York: Basic Books, 2007. Pp. vii, 600. $36.00.

Summary

Contents:

I - Culture

1. Pro Bono Publico

2. Tobacco as Much as Bullets

3. Engineering Consent

II - Science

4. More Doctors Smoke Camels

5. The Causal Conundrum

6. Constructing Controversy

III - Politics

7. The Surgeon General Has Determined

8. Congress: The Best Filter Yet

9. Your Cigarette Is Killing Me

IV - Law

10. Nicotine Is the Product

11. Mr. Butts Goes to Washington

12. The Trials of Big Tobacco

V - Globalization

13. Exporting an Epidemic

Epilogue- The Crime of the Century

Allan Brandt’s approach to the American cigarette industry is decidedly in the anti-tobacco camp, but his extensive narrative and documentary evidence provides a solid footing to argue that the industry consistently sought to distract and deceive its consumers about the hazards of smoking. The first chapters provide a straightforward narrative of the rise of the cigarette as a consumer good in the late nineteenth century and its distinction from more traditional forms of tobacco consumption wherein it became a “nicotine delivery device” [384]. Brandt argues that cigarette manufacturers in the pre-WWII years conspired for the purposes of “engineering consent” [69] among a public easily mislead by cutting edge advances in marketing and product placement.

Most of Brandt’s narrative is taken up with the emergence of a counter-narrative within the medical and scientific communities in the United States and the reactionary responses within the tobacco industry. He demonstrates that the industry acted as a monolith to create one voice in rebutting the emerging science of the 1950s that linked smoking to lung cancer. The industry exercised its agency through entities such as the Tobacco Industry Research Committee that served to legitimate the artifice of concern for consumer well-being and to muddy the scientific waters, especially in regards to the statistical correlations that were at the heart of most scientific arguments.

The latter portion of Brandt’s narrative is invested in the role of government in attempting to bring the industry to heel. One aspect is the regulatory agencies that were relatively effective in bringing scientific research to light, but which were ineffective in regulating. Congress came to the issue slowly and to this day, the sophisticated lobbying of the tobacco industry has largely limited the effectiveness of Congress to buttressing the machinations of cigarette interests. Litigation formed the most effective tool for anti-tobacco forces, but Brandt demonstrates that here too, the reach of the tobacco industry was such that apparent victories were Pyrrhic at best. Brandt’s research is built upon a solid foundation of an unusual archival circumstance. Whereas most industries have shielded much of their internal correspondence from outside scrutiny, the process of discovery in tobacco litigation has forced the industry “to reveal its most intimate corporate strategies” [10].

Commentary

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