- Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition by Robert N. Proctor
smoking, lung cancer, Big Tobacco, historians as experts
Robert N. Proctor is trying to get our attention. Leaving aside for a moment his provocative use of the words “holocaust” and “abolition” in the title of his book on the cigarette industry, Proctor’s prose rings with urgency and impatience. The cigarette is a defective product because “it kills when used as directed” (34). Flue curing of tobacco leaves is the “deadliest invention in the history of modern manufacturing” (34). Regulation has been stymied because of governments’ “secondary addiction” (49) to cigarette taxation, with the result that “dog food has been more tightly regulated” (3). Proctor’s book is an unapologetic polemic with the aim of freeing us from “laissez-fumer carcinogenic capitalism,” (540) and ends with a series of policy recommendations. If Proctor’s language reads as “biased” to scholars accustomed to a more moderated tone, they have missed one of his most important points: the infiltration of cigarette corporations into the workings of science, medicine, history, and the law since the 1930s has been so fundamental as to reshape knowledge production and legal arbitration in the United States. So tainted is the ground upon which we stand that we need first to understand how profoundly the tobacco industry tilted professional scholarship, journals, and organizations to its own benefit—that is, how biased our baseline of scholarship and popular discourse has become—before we can achieve a free and open academic and societal exchange about tobacco. It is time, Proctor proclaims, to “think outside the pack” (5).
Proctor’s book is the first historical analysis to make extensive and primary use of the seventy million-plus pages of internal industry documents secured through the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 and now available to the public online. He provides the most rigorous and comprehensive analysis to date of the tobacco industry’s internal knowledge of cigarettes’ link to lung cancer, heart disease, and emphysema and compares the industry’s private statements with concurrent public disavowals and obfuscations. His is also the first book to trace the breathtaking extent to which the [End Page 338] tobacco industry infiltrated and shaped research. The full pattern of intentional scientific manipulation and deception is thus revealed. What did scientists know and when did they know it? When did the public understand the dangers of smoking? How did the industry intentionally but usually clandestinely shape the fields of information upon which knowledge developed? Proctor’s is the most trenchant and nuanced treatment we now have of these questions about the history and sociology of knowledge.
Of course, the tobacco industry was not smelling of roses before Proctor’s publication: esteemed historians Allan Brandt, David Kessler, and others have revealed that the competing cigarette companies bonded together in the 1950s to form the Tobacco Industry Research Council, later the Council for Tobacco Research, an organization led by public relations experts and lawyers that intentionally produced doubt about cigarettes’ dangers by selectively sponsoring scientific research. Proctor does more than shock the already-jaded reader with further evidence about corporate disregard for human life, though he certainly does that. Rather, his book reframes the story from one centered on corporate misdeeds to one that also highlights the failure of U.S. research and legal institutions to protect their missions of safeguarding the health and wellbeing of the populace, adjudicating for justice, and providing histories that enable ethical consideration of present controversies. In short, we got bought.
Thousands of scientists and scholars conducted a vast diversity of research paid for by the industry. This included a seventy-year relationship between the Virginia College of Medicine and the industry but also includes researchers from dozens of other universities, including Harvard, Yale, and the University of California. Hundreds of statisticians and epidemiologists worked for the industry along with hundreds of basic and medical science researchers. Unsurprisingly, the researchers paid by...