April 12, 2007


The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America. By Allan M. Brandt. Basic Books. $36.

      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 United States is bad, bad, bad for allowing tobacco to be grown, harvested and sold. The people who grow, harvest and sell it are bad, bad, bad, too, unless they are victims of bad, bad, bad Big Tobacco.

      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 Harvard Medical School, as well as a professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard, and he clearly has tremendous skill in looking backward to find out how we got to where we are today. But he also wears anti-tobacco blinders. The evils of tobacco were trumpeted even when Sir Walter Raleigh first brought it to England – but so were its pleasures; and pleasure-seeking humans, certainly abetted in our own time by profit-seeking corporations, let the pursuit of short-term enjoyment overcome any concerns they might have had for long-term health. It could even be argued that the government was and remains complicit in this: people who die younger require fewer government services in old age, and many state governments are currently depending for their own plans on a regular flow of funds from tobacco settlements – funds that will come from future cigarette sales.

      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 Third World children smoking, it is hard to avoid questions that Brandt never bothers to ask: Where are the parents? Where is the countervailing adult influence? What really motivates these children to light up for the camera – advertising, movies, the camera’s presence?

      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 New York City until the mid-1960s. Brandt dutifully notes how often it blew smoke and when it was taken down. But he never asks how much pleasure the sheer audacity of the thing brought to millions upon millions of viewers – without leading them to smoke. There is no absolute link between Big Tobacco’s pushing of its products and the sales of cigarettes – the companies only wish there were! Brandt would be more effective if he turned what is clearly an excellent mind more in the direction of nuance. Yes, nuance – not even the story of tobacco and Big Tobacco is as entirely one-sided as The Cigarette Century would have you believe.

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