The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined
Tobacco is bad. Bad, bad, bad. It does bad things to people. Bad things, bad things, bad things. Big Tobacco is bad, bad, bad. It cleverly sells its bad products that do bad things to people. The
This is what Allan M. Brandt (rhymes with “rant”) serves up for 600 pages in The Cigarette Century, and it becomes tiresome very quickly. The fact that Brandt is so right about so much and has done such excellent research to back up his points is what gives the book a (+++) rating. But for anyone other than an anti-tobacco advocate looking for specifics to fill out a column or include in a court case, this book plods. And plods and plods and plods – even when Brandt writes of interesting subjects. One of the most intriguing historical elements in the marketing of cigarettes, for example, is the involvement of a nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, in helping American Tobacco push its product. Bernays, self-styled as the first “counsel on public relations,” used psychological and pseudopsychological concepts such as the group mind and herd reaction to create events that the mass media of the 1920s would consider to be news and would cover as such. His approach was brilliant, successful far more often than not, and if it proved not to have much staying power as media and the consumer society both grew more sophisticated, it certainly worked in its time. Bernays is due at least grudging respect – some might accord him actual admiration for his techniques, if not for the products they pushed – but Brandt will have none of it: what Bernays did was bad, bad, bad.
This is one author who never loses his focus. Brandt is the Amalie Moses Kass Professor of the History of Medicine at
Brandt has done a fine job of gathering information on what major tobacco firms were doing, versus what they were saying, for much of the past century; but little of what he presents is really new. And he trots forth oft-heard arguments about the tobacco companies’ focus (surreptitious at some times, more overt at others) on getting young people to smoke, especially poor young people in Third World countries. Again, this is correct, but it is scarcely news; and when Brandt trots out the expected photos of very young
Even seemingly innocent photos are treated less thoughtfully than they could be. There is, for example, a picture of the famous smoke-blowing Camel billboard that was prominent in Times Square in