The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Author:||Martin, James Kirby|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Spring, 2009 Source Volume: 42 Source Issue: 3|
|Topic:||NamedWork: The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Brandt, Allan M.|
The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of
the Product that Defined America. By Allan M. Brandt. (New York: Basic
Books. vii plus 600. $36.00).
According to Allan M. Brandt in Cigarette Century, "Big Tobacco" has engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to deceive the American people about the various health risks associated with the modern cigarette. Brandt's alleged plot features an elaborately-orchestrated "disinformation" campaign, initially launched when tobacco company executives met late in 1953 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Attempting to counter recent epidemiological research linking heavy smoking with rising lung cancer rates, they contracted with the well-known Hill & Knowlton public relations firm with the supposed purpose of raising doubts about whether such medical studies had shown conclusively that smoking was the cause of this deadly form of cancer. For decades thereafter, according to the author's conspiracy-laden story line, the American people received never ending supplies of Big Tobacco "lies." The only purpose was to keep the misinformed populace smoking, regardless of the health consequences. Fortunately for the public, insists Brandt, a small band of crusading public health officials, plaintiffs' attorneys, and a handful of undeceived citizens affiliated with voluntary health organizations and anti-smoking lobbying groups, at times working with state and national politicians, came to the rescue. These heroic crusaders were able to punch their way through the alleged impenetrable mass of disinformation and reveal the "secret" that the companies had so masterfully hidden for so long from the American people--that smoking was both addictive and potentially very harmful to health.
In reality, Brandt's Cigarette Century is not so much a history of its subject as it is an extended denunciation of what the author considers a "rogue" industry. The book is also a paean to various crusaders who finally "exposed" what the author repeatedly labels the company's "masterfully dishonest spin campaign" (p. 499). As such, tobacco company agencies like the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (later called the Council for Tobacco Research), formed in late 1953 to distribute grants to scientists investigating health questions related to smoking, purposely awarded millions of dollars to encourage scientists to study questions irrelevant to smoking and health. Nothing but junk studies and bought off scientists, Brandt asserts, resulted from these grants; such scientists, in turn, he argues, stood ready to reinforce Big Tobacco's assertion that causal connections between smoking cigarettes and serious health problems were not yet proven.
By comparison, various crusading plaintiffs' attorneys, some of whom succeeded in obtaining court rulings that made thousands of company documents publicly available, did so only in the noble quest for truth. That a few of these lawyers turned themselves into billionaires in the process of taking on Big Tobacco does not seem relevant, since any action, whether fair or foul, to put an end to cigarette smoking gets Brandt's full endorsement.
In many ways, Cigarette Century reads like an extended religious allegory in which good and evil keep colliding in a cosmic struggle over the fate of the American people. The challenge for Brandt is that, to make his interpretation work, ordinary people must lack agency. His attempted denials aside, the people in his version of history cannot think or act for themselves. They apparently did not go to school and attend health classes warning them about the health risks of smoking. They never heard such slang expressions as "coffin nail" or "cancer stick." They did not read newspapers or magazines that contained a steady stream of articles about the negative effects of lighting up or the difficulties in quitting. However, if they did, they only believed words planted by the Big Tobacco effort to question possible causal patterns.
Confounded, confused, and misled, the American people, Brandt insists, gained the bulk of their health information from cigarette advertisements, not from such voluntary health agencies as the American Cancer Society or the American Heart Association, or from various surgeons general of the United States, to suggest only a few influential sources. Blinded by company denials and the lure of glamorous ad copy, Brandt's agency-less version of the people could not see the warning labels that began to appear on every cigarette pack in 1966, apparently because such phrases as "Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous To Your Health" (introduced in 1969) were too oblique to understand.
Brandt's research draws heavily on so-called "bad" company documents now available on the internet for anyone who would like to peruse them. He has also conducted archival research relating to medical/scientific persons engaged in the smoking controversy, including Clarence Cook Little, Evarts Graham, and Luther Terry. What the author has not done in the way of balanced research is also extensive. For example, he has conducted little systematic research in such obvious sources as national and regional newspapers, magazines, educational materials, and health publications. Nor has he apparently investigated the numerous anti-smoking activities of such respected voluntary hearth agencies as the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association. Almost nowhere does he discuss popular culture sources or public information television programs presented by the major networks or even anti-smoking public service announcements for that matter.
In formulating his argument about an ill-informed, agency-less populace hopelessly duped by the Big Tobacco conspiracy, Brandt apparently chose to ignore the incredible number of health and addiction-related warnings repeatedly appearing in these kinds of standard historical sources. Nor does he allow for the possibility that an alert, intelligent American populace, genuinely concerned about their personal health, not only received but acted on these messages. Brandt is also quick to dismiss conclusions reached by other historians, based on careful archival research, which has demonstrated that a significant scientific debate, not generated by Big Tobacco, occurred during the 1950s regarding whether statistics derived from epidemiological studies could prove causation. (1) By comparison, he readily applauds and draws on journalistic studies generated by plaintiffs' attorneys which offer up many of the same conclusions that he both repeats and expands on in his own study. (2) In fact, repetition is a key characteristic of Cigarette Century. Brandt pounds home his point of view over and over and over again as if he is not quite sure that his readers, like his version of the American people, have enough personal agency to think for themselves.
Brandt ends his text by raising the issue of using the past as a tool for social advocacy. "If we occasionally cross the boundary between analysis and advocacy," he writes in his last paragraph, "so be it" (p. 505). Certainly social advocacy, more than balanced historical explication and analysis, lies at the heart of this book. Cigarette Century thus fits into a well-established genre of anti-tobacco publications, dating all the way back to King James I's A Counterblaste To Tobacco (1604). As a work of history, on the other hand, it is long, repetitive, lopsided, and incomplete.
(1.) For example, see Mark Parascandola, "Skepticism, Statistical Methods, and the Cigarette: A Historical Analysis of a Methodological Debate," Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 42 (2004): 244-61; and Colin Talley, Howard I. Kushner, and Claire E. Sterk, "Lung Cancer, Chronic Disease, Epidemiology and Medicine, 1948-1964," Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 59 (2004): 329-74.
(2.) See Dan Zegart, Civil Warriors: The Legal Siege on the Tobacco Industry (New York, 2000), for an example of this journalistic approach, in this instance cited approvingly by Brandt as an "especially valuable" rendering of "tobacco litigation" (p. 579).
University of Houston
James Kirby Martin
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