One of America’s most popular products over the last century gets a biography in Sarah Milov’s “The Cigarette: A Political History.”
What one finds in Milov’s book is almost a bell curve in Americans’ cigarette usage through the 20th century. Just over 100 years ago, not many Americans smoked cigarettes, accounting for only 7 percent of tobacco consumption in 1914. Smoking peaked in mid-century when 46 percent of American adults smoked cigarettes and declined by 2016 with only 15 percent of the nation smoking.
Milov tells of the twist and turns of the cigarette’s political life. The U.S. government took action against the tobacco industry at the beginning of the 20th century, but not out of health concerns. Rather, punitive actions were in line with other anti-trust measures during that era. In 1911, the Supreme Court issued the dissolution of the American Tobacco Company. Despite this breakup, tobacco manufacturers enjoyed huge advantages over farmers. The number of Americans taking to cigarettes skyrocketed during the 1920s as the result of aggressive advertising and the U.S. government supplying soldiers with cigarettes during World War I.
Farmers wouldn’t see attempts at market parity until the New Deal. Farming subsidies would take hold in the 1930s and the tobacco industry would be marked by a cozy relationship between agriculture, industry and the federal government for decades to come.
By the 1960s, many people on both the left and the right questioned
the conciliatory relationship the U.S. government had with business, a relationship that was largely responsible for the post-war Keynesian economic boom. Critics on the left and right saw undue influence from business interest groups that jeopardized the independence of Congress and regulatory agencies. More significantly, in 1964 the surgeon general released a report that linked smoking with an increased risk of cancer and coronary heart disease.
Milov writes extensively of a group of people who consciously cast themselves as a new social and political category: the nonsmoker. Drawing on the activism of the civil rights, feminist and environmental movements, and the mounting evidence of the cigarette’s destructive effects on health, in the 1970s this erstwhile silent majority began a grassroots movement to demand freedom from the daily life of living around tobacco smoke. Invoking the now defunct Fairness Doctrine, in the late ’60s they began to demand that the Federal Communications Commission air equal time for anti-smoking messages to balance the time given to America’s most advertised product. They brought civil suits with the goal of accomplishing smoke-free workplaces and airplane cabins, all with major pushback from the powerful tobacco industry.
We know, of course, that the nonsmokers were largely successful. The smoky restaurants and offices seen in “Mad Men” has been long gone in most places. But Milov does point out some nuances in that narrative. As smoking declined in the Untied States, the class divide between smokers and nonsmokers increased. Today, cigarette smokers are more likely to be poor and live in rural areas. Milov doesn’t cast the smoker as a total villain when she points out that smoking is often a way to deal with the stresses of poverty and the persistence of the habit is due to a lack of quality health care methods that help people quit.
Instead, the villain in “The Cigarette” is the tobacco industry. The machinations of the cigarette lobby and how an alphabet soup of government agencies abetted it is honestly dry reading. Milov covers a lot of ground in a short space, but she doesn’t spare the reader in how the industry got to be so powerful. This part can be tough going because it unfolds the complex regulations and economics that made the cigarette what it is, but it is worth the effort because it is ultimately an enlightening read.
The book is most captivating later on when Milov writes about the ordinary Americans who took on corporate and government behemoths and scored major victories. After reading “The Cigarette,” you may be glad that some people didn’t butt out.