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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
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Update newsletter preferences. Comments Share your thoughts and debate the big issues. The landmark surgeon general's report of gave an authoritative stamp to the link between smoking and lung cancer, but the tobacco industry did not take the new science-based challenges lying down. At the same time, they went on the attack, vigorously recruiting scientific "experts" who claimed that the case for associating tobacco use with lung cancer had not been proved. More studies were necessary, the industry and its experts argued, before any causal inferences could be drawn although, strikingly, they offered no studies as counterevidence.
Always creative, the industry also moved beyond the scientific "controversy" as they labeled it to create new images for the late-century smoker to identify with—most notably the Marlboro Man, a virile, independent "free spirit" evoking traditional American values, and Joe Camel, a "cool customer" designed to appeal to the urban smoker and to captivate children and teens. Brandt skillfully weaves together the book's dual leitmotifs: pervasive and pathbreaking industry reliance on advertising to shape consumer demand, countered by challenges from antitobacco forces.
The two sides were at loggerheads, and there would be no serious breakthrough in reducing the appeal of tobacco until the s, when antismoking efforts in the legislative arena came to the forefront. Soon thereafter, the Federal Communications Commission required broadcast media, under the "fairness doctrine," to counter cigarette advertising with health messages. But no amount of money could make the growing body of scientific evidence go away. Recognizing the threat, the industry leaned more heavily on another theme that resonated like the rugged individualism of the Marlboro Man with the American character: freedom of choice.
This line of advocacy, however, which the industry trumpeted both in opposition to product regulation and as a defense to lawsuits, was not without risks; after all, the logical implication of freedom of choice was that there were reasons not to choose smoking. The smoker's right to opt for the pleasures of smoking was used as a trump card against both paternalistic risk regulation and injury claims. The strategy rested uneasily alongside the industry's continuing vehement assertions that no such risks had been established.
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In the end, the fortress of freedom of choice proved not to be impregnable, but it fell for reasons entirely apart from its shaky foundation in logic. Two distinct lines of attack led to the industry's undoing in the realm of public opinion and hastened a precipitous drop in smoking rates, from nearly half of the adult population in the early s to about 20 percent now. One front addressed the health consequences of environmental tobacco smoke for nonsmokers. Again the industry waved the banner of "not proved. By the mids, states and localities had begun to enact a wide variety of bans on smoking in public places, based on concerns about secondhand smoke that stood the freedom-of-choice argument on its head.
Smoking was on its way to becoming a marginalized activity. The second assault was aimed directly at the freedom-of-choice argument, focusing on the addictive character of nicotine. Ironically, it was not the pathology of addiction itself that proved devastating to the industry, but the internal business documents uncovered during pretrial discovery for various lawsuits, revealing that companies had manipulated nicotine content and were explicitly committed to rejection of evidence-based addiction studies.
Indeed, the irony can hardly be overstated. The documents have led to mixed results in litigation: a comprehensive multistate financial settlement of health reimbursement claims, but no breakthrough in class-action or individual lawsuits, in which the industry has more than held its own. More critically, the documents eventually yielded a mountain of much-publicized information on industry efforts not just to manipulate nicotine content, but also to obfuscate health-risk data and target vulnerable populations of potential smokers, especially impressionable young people.
By the end of the 20th century, the emerging tale of hypocrisy and deceit had led to the perception that tobacco was an outlaw industry. These documents serve as the foundation for much of Brandt's narrative—and not surprisingly, the book offers a harsh indictment of the tobacco industry and, in a closing chapter, condemnation of the strategies companies are employing to recruit smokers in less-regulated markets overseas.
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In its particulars, Brandt's recounting of the place of smoking in American life and politics covers familiar territory for those who have closely followed the unfolding saga of tobacco over the past decade or have read previous historical accounts, particularly Richard Kluger's book Ashes to Ashes. But Brandt has an acute eye for the larger cultural and institutional dimensions of the tobacco narrative.
And rather than organizing his material in a strictly chronological fashion, he wisely takes a multifaceted approach, portraying smoking as it has intersected with American culture, science and law.
The Cigarette Century is thus a thought-provoking account of tobacco as a key defining constituent of life in America over the course of the 20th century.