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  • The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America
  • James Kirby Martin
The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America. By Allan M. Brandt. (New York: Basic Books. vii plus 600. $36.00).

According to Allan M. Brandt in Cigarette Century, "Big Tobacco" has engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to deceive the American people about the various health risks associated with the modern cigarette. Brandt's alleged plot features an elaborately-orchestrated "disinformation" campaign, initially launched when tobacco company executives met late in 1953 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Attempting to counter recent epidemiological research linking heavy smoking with rising lung cancer rates, they contracted with the well-known Hill & Knowlton public relations firm with the supposed purpose of raising doubts about whether such medical studies had shown conclusively that smoking was the cause of this deadly form of cancer. For decades thereafter, according to the author's conspiracy-laden story line, the American people received never ending supplies of Big Tobacco "lies." The only purpose was to keep the misinformed populace smoking, regardless of the health consequences. Fortunately for the public, insists Brandt, a small band of crusading public health officials, plaintiffs' attorneys, and a handful of undeceived citizens affiliated with voluntary health organizations and anti-smoking lobbying groups, at times working with state and national politicians, came to the rescue. These heroic crusaders were able to punch their way through the alleged impenetrable mass of disinformation and reveal the "secret" that the companies had so masterfully hidden for so long from the American people—that smoking was both addictive and potentially very harmful to health.

In reality, Brandt's Cigarette Century is not so much a history of its subject as it is an extended denunciation of what the author considers a "rogue" industry. The book is also a paean to various crusaders who finally "exposed" what the author repeatedly labels the company's "masterfully dishonest spin campaign" (p. 499). As such, tobacco company agencies like the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (later called the Council for Tobacco Research), formed in late 1953 to distribute grants to scientists investigating health questions related to smoking, [End Page 817] purposely awarded millions of dollars to encourage scientists to study questions irrelevant to smoking and health. Nothing but junk studies and bought off scientists, Brandt asserts, resulted from these grants; such scientists, in turn, he argues, stood ready to reinforce Big Tobacco's assertion that causal connections between smoking cigarettes and serious health problems were not yet proven.

By comparison, various crusading plaintiffs' attorneys, some of whom succeeded in obtaining court rulings that made thousands of company documents publicly available, did so only in the noble quest for truth. That a few of these lawyers turned themselves into billionaires in the process of taking on Big Tobacco does not seem relevant, since any action, whether fair or foul, to put an end to cigarette smoking gets Brandt's full endorsement.

In many ways, Cigarette Century reads like an extended religious allegory in which good and evil keep colliding in a cosmic struggle over the fate of the American people. The challenge for Brandt is that, to make his interpretation work, ordinary people must lack agency. His attempted denials aside, the people in his version of history cannot think or act for themselves. They apparently did not go to school and attend health classes warning them about the health risks of smoking. They never heard such slang expressions as "coffin nail" or "cancer stick." They did not read newspapers or magazines that contained a steady stream of articles about the negative effects of lighting up or the difficulties in quitting. However, if they did, they only believed words planted by the Big Tobacco effort to question possible causal patterns.

Confounded, confused, and misled, the American people, Brandt insists, gained the bulk of their health information from cigarette advertisements, not from such voluntary health agencies as the American Cancer Society or the American Heart Association, or from various surgeons general of the United States, to suggest only a few influential sources. Blinded by company denials...