- The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America
Allan Brandt is deeply worried about the cigarette and he thinks you should be too. Many have said it before, but Brandt's eloquence and conviction, not to mention his extremely penetrating historical method, make you sit up and listen. The world is and has been for a century or more in the throes of a pandemic entirely of its own making, with a current accumulated death toll of one hundred million people, and that number is expected to rise significantly over this century. "The agent—the cause of disease," Brandt writes, "is a popular and aggressively marketed legal product, the lifeline of one of the most successful multinational industries of the last hundred years, and a source of revenues to farmers, workers, and governments throughout the world" (p. 487).
Just think about it for a moment. The cigarette, certainly more than any other object we have as companions, is consummately, intimately, and irresistibly human. Take any two people and examine the way they take the cigarette from the package, hold it, place it between the lips, light it up, draw in the smoke, blow it out, hold it, flick the ash, put it out—so individual, so psychological, brash, sexy, sleek, artistic. And all the time, the nicotine rushes to the brain and addicts you to it. And then it kills you. Wow!
Brandt knows that the cigarette is a complex thing, and he positively relishes its historical possibilities. The year 1869, when the New York firm of F. S. Kinney really began making and selling hand-rolled cigarettes, may be taken as the birth of the habit, but as Brandt so correctly points out, it is really a product of the twentieth century—it reeks of modernity, an object of desire. And, more than anything else, it is this association with modernity that propels the cigarette in its global pursuit of new addicts.
The book falls neatly into five main sections, each of which crosscuts into the history of the cigarette in the United States to reveal not only its historical twists and turns but also much about American culture. Each section unwraps the cigarette and then reassembles it for the next cut. Thus the reader is successively introduced to the cultural, scientific and medical, political, legal, and global aspects of the "rise, fall and deadly persistence" of the cigarette. [End Page 485]
Brandt's tale is tragic, I think. It is a brave book. At the core of it is a tale of a quagmire of dependence and a manipulative business, all perfectly legal. Using all the techniques of mass marketing—the fingers of the king of spin, Edward Bernays, are here as they were in so many businesses—pushing their product and becoming fabulously wealthy, tobacco executives for decades played the innocent corporate game; all they were exercising was simply good business practice in their endeavor to increase market share at the expense of the competition. Behind the scenes, however, in their boardrooms and in their laboratories, they were up to no good. Brave individuals forced these companies to the courtroom and, in the last decade and more, self-serving executives have been forced to reveal their paper trail. And an avalanche it has been. Thanks to the Internet, we can all read about it. It makes for uncomfortable reading.
Brandt carefully avoids sensationalism. The reader is in the hands of a master. The book ends with a riveting and very personal epilogue. Resist the temptation to read it first. Enjoy and savor it only after you have read this most impressive and important book.