A new book explores the intertwined politics behind a global addiction.
On July 11, thousands of people heard a remarkable story on the NPR and WBUR radio show, in which two respected historians asserted that Americans never would have been more dependent on tobacco were it not for the massive support of the US government. For many, this was certainly a surprising assertion, as Big Tobacco is often seen as at odds with big government, with its regulations and disclosure requirements and public aversion to its citizens getting sick and dying. There was just one problem: The two historians, both men, didn’t credit the story’s source—another historian, a woman named Sarah Miloff, and her new book, Cigarettes: A Political History.
Within days, the story was everywhere. It was first published in The Lily, where the article is translated, “They have a period. She doesn’t.” “Every word they said was from my book,” Miloff, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, told The Lily, noting that she would end up in the position within the year. Twitter exploded, and countless other posts shared stories. The historians, Edward Ayers and Nathan Connolly, quickly apologized, as did the radio stations. For many, the incident personified a shared dynamic at the academy, where male scholars had long taken credit for the work of female colleagues.
Although the controversy, as Jezebel noted, led to “much publicity” for Miloff’s book, the NPR incident itself threatened more attention than the history Miloff spent years uncovering. That would be a shame, because it would miss what The Cigarette really is: a nuanced and ultimately devastating indictment of government complicity with the worst excesses of American capitalism. The Cigarette looks beyond individual consumers and their choices and aims for direct insight into the larger phenomena that shape all of our lives: the exigencies of war, the rise of organized interest groups, the downfall of government regulators, and the massive and unseen impact of big business.
At the turn of the 20th century, cigarettes were still more or less a marginal product, scorned by moralists as “little white slavers”, fanatics as an immigrant habit, and shunned by many in favor of pipes, cigars, or chewing tobacco. It took the federal government to make cigarettes a popular consumer good: In 1917, Congress appropriated money to put cigarettes in the rations of soldiers preparing to fight in World War I, hoping to distract them from “more dangerous types of vice.” Cigarettes caught on, and tobacco companies embarked on innovative advertising campaigns to ensure that the “valorization of cigarettes at war” could continue peacefully. And it just kept going: From 1914 to 1920, cigarettes jumped from 7 percent to 20 percent of American tobacco consumption. For the next century, federal intervention will continue to determine the course of the cigarette – for good or very bad.
As demand increased, more problems emerged. Tobacco leaves fell in price. The farmers who grew and cultivated the smoked tobacco used to make cigarettes feel “vulnerable and angry”. Their labors had made a handful of strong white men exceptionally wealthy, but the farmers (not to mention the pickers, who worked under barbaric conditions, and the cigarette-rollers, made obsolete by machinery) felt exploited and undervalued. Cursing the “oligopoly” of R.J. Reynolds, Leggett, Myers, Laurier, and the James B. Duke American Tobacco Company.
Drawing on the legacy of the populist predecessors, farmers have tried to organize co-operatives so that they can dictate the price of tobacco to corporations. Corporations and their allies have crushed cooperatives, through intimidation, litigation, and even outright vandalism. In the end, salvation came in the form of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s economists, who quickly diagnosed the problem with the tobacco economy: overproduction. Too much tobacco clogged the throat of commerce. As part of the New Deal, federal officials sought to control the economy and eliminate unnecessary competition. To eliminate overproduction in the tobacco economy, the Feds created a program whereby they would pay farmers not to grow tobacco, to take fertile farmland out of production so that the prices paid for tobacco in the economy would remain high. Cultivators who did not cooperate would be subject to a heavy tax. The New Deal turned farmers into managers of the state.
World War II was another lucky break. Cigarette companies ingeniously capitalized on their wartime zeal – “Lucky Strike Green has gone to war!” – And the prices that farmers received rose every year from 1940 to 1946. After the war, companies devoted themselves to expanding the cigarette market throughout the country and all over the world. They’ve invested in ever brighter advertising. “Cigarettes were once the vice of immigrants and juvenile delinquents,” Milov writes. “But war, advertising, and Hollywood helped broaden, professionalize, and glamorize smoking’s appeal.” By 1955, nearly a quarter of American women and more than half of American men were “active smokers.”
As a result of the company’s strong lobbying, the money donated to Europe in the Marshall Plan would be used for the tobacco industry; $1 billion went to tobacco, “a figure that represents a third of all food aid.” In theory, this was intended to support European manufacturing economies. In practice, this ensured that European cigarette companies used American leaves to make their products—and made European consumers addicted to American flue-cured tobacco. Tobacco companies also cemented their expansion into foreign markets by lobbying at international exhibitions and trade fairs. By 1949, according to one survey, between 85 and 90 percent of West Germans preferred the taste of smoked tobacco to the ancient Greek or Turkish varieties smoked for a long time by older generations. Thus, by the middle of the 20th century, the American cigarette had taken over the world.
The farmers were pleased with the arrangement, as were the tobacco companies. However, trouble was brewing at home. During the 1950s, newspapers began running more and more stories about the disturbing connection between smoking and lung cancer (the association noted as early as 1939). For several years, tobacco companies were able to quell health concerns through crafty advertising and public relations, and smoking rates continued to rise. But the federal government stepped in again when, in 1964, Surgeon General Luther Terry issued a report declaring in no uncertain terms the link between cigarettes and cancer. This began what would eventually be a radical reassessment of the relationship between government and tobacco growers, if not tobacco companies.
The Federal Trade Commission immediately began drafting regulations that would severely restrict cigarette companies’ advertising—requiring, for example, that a health warning be included in all radio and television advertisements. But before these regulations were imposed, cigarette companies got on the defensive. Led by Fred Royster, a wealthy and well-connected warehouse-farmer known in North Carolina as “Mr. Tobacco,” and industry trade groups such as the well-funded Tobacco Institute, corporate allies persuaded Congress to repeal ad warnings and reduce the warning label to appear on cigarette packages. Instead of asking, “Cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health,” they suggested weaker wording, “Cigarette smoking may be dangerous to your health.” The companies—with the help of senior D.C. attorney (soon-to-be Supreme Court justice) Abe Fortas—engineered a sweetheart deal with the Justice Department under which they could regulate their own advertising.
With traditional mechanisms of federal regulation effectively neutralized, savvy public interest lawyers have turned to more creative approaches. Led by John Banzhaf, the unorthodox 27-year-old legal man, these lawyers convinced the federal government that it should require prime-time ads showing not only the “pleasures of a smoker’s life” but also the “horrors of a smoker’s death.” One such ad featured Bill Tallman, the actor who portrayed the district attorney who loses his case every week to Perry Mason, talking about his lung cancer diagnosis: “Take some advice about smoking and losing from someone who’s been doing both for years.” By the time the ad aired, he was dead.
Meanwhile, Banzhaf became a professor of law at George Washington University and founded Action on Smoking and Health from his college office. He began mobilizing his students to sue the agencies, and successfully argued for the creation of non-smoking sections on airplanes. His catchphrase was, “Soo bastards”.
As the 1960s became the 1970s, the philosophy of deregulation took hold. Liberals worried about corporate takeovers joined with conservatives skeptical of big government stifling big business, and together they persuaded government to weaken rules requiring no-smoking departments. As the agencies’ strength continued to weaken during the 1970s, another strategy for change had to emerge. And one did: the non-smokers’ rights movement.
In 1971, a Maryland housewife named Clara Gwen, whose youngest daughter was allergic to smoking, founded a group against smoking pollution. GASP quickly spread through college towns and liberal enclaves, with the goal of making what they called the “silent majority” as visible as possible. From Berkeley to Flint, members have raised awareness of their cause and politely requested smoke-free zones in their places of work and leisure. Other activists — some affiliated with GASP, others affiliated with ASH in Banzhaf or acting on their own — have sued their premises, arguing that they have the “right” to be smokefree.
The non-smokers’ rights movement emerged a decade ago before evidence linking cancer to secondhand smoke inhalation. “The calls for non-smokers’ rights were civilly motivated, not scientific,” Milov wrote. “It was based on non-smokers’ emphasis on virtuous citizenship, and it was fueled by the resentment of smokers.” Non-smokers resented the entitlement of their smoking peers, and their refusal to consider the feelings of those nearby whenever they lit up. And though Milov is often a bit harsh on GASP, criticizing its embrace of “liberation” rhetoric even when hiding within the “safe confines of suburban liberalism,” she paints with insight how its members and other activists scored major victories at the same time and left the cigarette companies off the hook. in the process.
With their lawsuits met with only mixed success, middle-class activists began to appeal to corporations directly, arguing that restricting smoking could be beneficial to their ultimate plan—fewer sick days, lower disability costs, lower housekeeping (because smoking damaged equipment and furnishings), and fees Smaller legal (because smokers were involved in twice as many accidents as non-smokers, and non-smokers might sue for defining smoke as an occupational health hazard). A generation of neoliberal economists and many insurers agreed. (As a result, insurance companies have begun selectively selling discounted insurance policies to non-smokers.) “Ambient tobacco smoke is a silent drain on a company’s resources,” notes Miloff, “perhaps a metaphor for the hidden costs of smokers themselves.” Companies saw no-smoking policies become increasingly common during the 1980s.
This happened because of the fierce opposition of organized labor. Unions fought hard to win smoke breaks in the 1940s, and if they must, they wanted it to be on their terms, through collective bargaining. However, by the 1980s organized labor had lost much of its power. The tactics of non-smoking activists ensured they had even less. Smoke breaks—unproductive times during which workers could bond—were also eliminated, with nothing but more work to replace them. “By drawing on cost-centered analyzes of private behavior and exposing collective programs that have been in place for decades,” Miloff writes, “the non-smokers’ rights movement reshaped what Americans believed government owed to citizens, and what citizens owed government.” A conservative political strategy whose far-reaching implications are difficult to comprehend, and very real.”
Tobacco growers also suffered. By the 1980s, Republicans were becoming more suspicious of the federal tobacco program, and heavy government intervention in the free market. Democrats are becoming more skeptical of Big Tobacco, especially the biggest champ in Congress, Jesse Helms. Even Big Tobacco had soured on the federal program, because it was buying more and more leaves from overseas growers who might grow much cheaper. (By the end of the 20th century, 90 percent of flue-cured and burley tobacco was grown outside the United States.) After being repeatedly weakened over the years, the federal tobacco program finally ended in 2004. Since then, tobacco has been grown on one-year contracts between corporations, which could effectively dictate the prices they wanted, and individual growers, who lacked any Collective bargaining rights.
smokers are now poorer and less educated than non-smokers; They have higher rates of cancer. And they are constantly told that it is all their fault.
When reckoning finally came to Big Tobacco, its influence on the government ensured it would not be enough. For years, state governments have been fighting with the largest cigarette companies, demanding that they pay for the massive tobacco-related health care costs they left in their wake. In the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the companies agreed to pay state governments more than $200 billion for 25 years (actually a pittance compared to the costs of tobacco-related illnesses), but in return, they got something they wanted much more: “an end to the lawsuits.” Collective courts and a maximum limit to punitive sentences for individual cases. State governments, which relied on these funds to balance budgets, did not want litigation to jeopardize the companies’ ability to continue writing checks. For health advocates, the MSA was “a public health failure and a corporate coup.”
Today, only 15 percent of Americans smoke, down from about 50 percent in the middle of the century. It is estimated that anti-smoking activists have saved 8 million American lives over 50 years. smokers are now poorer and less educated than non-smokers; They have higher rates of cancer. And they are constantly told that it is all their fault. “From seed to smoke, responsibility for tobacco production and consumption has been privatized and individualized.” Tobacco companies don’t even care how few Americans smoke. Smoking has gone overseas, and cigarette companies now derive most of their profits from international sales. Today, about 80 percent of smokers live in low- or middle-income countries. The losses of internationalizing the cigarette are unimaginable. As medical historian Alan Brandt wrote, by the end of the century “the death toll is expected to be one billion.”
Although The Cigarette is excellent, it is far from the first book to document the damage done by Big Tobacco. For example, Alan Brandt’s wonderful book The Cigarette Century recounted the remarkable hypocrisy of the cigarette companies. Richard Kluger’s Ashes to Ashes depicted the Tobacco Wars in a fictional style. None of these scientists have written a real people’s history of cigarettes – to explore the human cost of the industry to farmers, smokers, and non-smokers. But Miloff provides the first description of government complicity with this stark human cost, and the way big tobacco has evolved, adapted to lawmakers and regulators, and thrived. And a billion people needlessly lost their lives.
The lessons of her book remain startlingly relevant today. We are in the midst of revelations that the sugar industry similarly relied on advertising to distract consumers from the intense addiction. In the NFL’s battles with former football players dying of CTE, the league hired the same lawyers, consultants, and lobbyists that Big Tobacco used. Cell phone companies have worked tirelessly to hide evidence of the connection between cellular radiation and all sorts of negative health effects. Even with mass shootings occurring daily, the gun industry is pressing to get out of any meaningful oversight. Even more damaging, fossil fuel companies have relied on shoddy science, relentless public relations, and willful dissemination of skepticism to cover up the relationship between oil, gas, and climate change—a business decision that boosted profits in the short term but may have doomed our business. complete civilization.
Will we learn from the history mentioned in The Cigarette? As Miloff’s book eerily shows, larger forces have always been quietly and insidiously shaping a great deal of everyday life: privatization, cool advertising, the rise of late capitalism. When we think about how we can achieve justice for the greatest crimes, we must turn our attention away from individual consumers and their choices and focus squarely on those who have used their vast power to engineer entire economies for their own benefit.