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Blowing Smoke

Handing out chocolates, cookies and cigarettes to American soldiers near a sign that reads
Handing out chocolates, cookies and cigarettes to American soldiers near a sign that reads "Help yourself." (© Bettmann/corbis)

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Reviewed by Bryan Burrough
Sunday, March 18, 2007

THE CIGARETTE CENTURY

The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of The Product That Defined America

By Allan M. Brandt

Basic. 600 pp. $36

Recent years have seen a flurry of what might be called "inanimate" biographies -- that is, books devoted to the life of a thing rather than a person. Salt got one, cod, too, even some naughty words. While I admire the scholarship that goes into these studies, they tend to leave me a bit flat. I mean, it's the rare cod that battled the Boers alongside Winston Churchill or ate fried eggs off Ava Gardner's chest. And while I love a heaping spoon of Morton's as much as the next guy, no matter how you shake it, salt will simply never own up to losing its virginity to the upstairs maid. By their very nature, these books can come off as bloodless digests of minutiae. Given a choice between Kitty Kelley's latest and A Brief History of the Booger, I'd hold my nose and pick the Kelley. You'd have to.

Next up: the cigarette. In The Cigarette Century, Allan M. Brandt, a Harvard Medical School professor with a very long and impressive job title, does a nice job of putting Kools and Salems on the couch. The tobacco industry has become well-worn territory for authors and journalists, but Brandt, an expert witness in a number of anti-tobacco lawsuits, enlivens a familiar story by scanning with the widest possible lens, easily unbundling and reassembling the narrative threads of the cigarette's rise and mid-career flameout.

It's all here: the Marlboro Man's drug-fueled orgies with Ravi Shankar, Joe Camel slapping Elizabeth Taylor that night at the Palm. Okay, okay, I made those up. The book actually doesn't go anywhere near Elizabeth Taylor, which is too bad, but Brandt manages to weave all the diverse elements of the cigarette's history -- medical research, advertising, lawsuits, public relations, corporate intrigue -- into a surprisingly unified narrative. It's a good story, well told.

Most inanimate biographies score or flop on their success at delivering two things: memorable minor characters -- the president who downed 17 cod every morning for breakfast, the sultan who built an empire on salt -- and especially the "Honey-you've-got-to-read-this" detail. In my experience, you need at least one of these forehead-slapping factoids every five pages to keep the cod-curious reader interested. By and large, Brandt rates an A-minus on the detail, maybe a C-plus on the minor characters. His people, from the turn-of-the-century tobacco monopolist Buck Duke to the latter-day apologists who sweat before Mike Wallace, could use more flesh on their bones.

The modern cigarette, Brandt reminds us, was born in the late 19th century but for the longest time remained the industry's neglected stepchild. Chewing tobacco (also known by its technical name, God This Stuff Is Gross) and even pipe tobacco sold better. Hand-rolled cigarettes cost too much to make and sold for too little to justify greater investment. Besides, the dowdy matrons bustling around the country decrying the use of alcohol tended to moonlight at decrying cigarettes as tiny engines of filth, sexual depravity and downward mobility. All in all, the death merchants of yore judged cigarettes more trouble than they were worth.

But then came rolling machines. For the first time, cigarettes could be made for pennies apiece, and at that point no one much cared about the naysayers. (Did you know that 16 states briefly outlawed cigarettes in the 1920s? Liar.) In the 1910s, Big Tobacco all but created national advertising to peddle Lucky Strikes and other brands. Still, cigarette use didn't catch fire until -- bing! memorable detail!-- World War I, when American soldiers found a cheap smoke the perfect way to unwind after a tough day in the trenches. Doughboys so craved cigarettes that -- bing bing bing!-- the YMCA handed them out for free. By the Great Depression, an avalanche of ad campaigns had transformed the cigarette into an easily recognized symbol of both male virility and female liberation.

The rest, as they say, is cancer. The golden age of the cigarette during the 1930s and '40s -- think Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca," Lauren Bacall in anything -- was followed in short order by the downbeat news that rates of lung cancer, a heretofore all-but-unknown malady, were skyrocketing. Here Brandt confronts the elephant in his narrative kitchen. The outrage many Americans felt during the 1990s, when internal industry documents exposed Big Tobacco's Machiavellian strategies to subvert the science of lung cancer, is no longer fresh. If Brandt can't make the reader feel that outrage again, he's headed to the showers.

Well, he does it. Big time. I defy anyone to read the middle chapters of The Cigarette Century, the ones that detail the foundation of the Tobacco Institute and the industry's efforts to muddy scientific waters, and not come away with a burning need to drive down to North Carolina and find someone to throttle. Or Madison Avenue. Among the many villains Brandt skillfully waterboards are executives at the public relations giant Hill & Knowlton, which during the 1950s single-handedly orchestrated Big Tobacco's campaign to undermine anti-smoking advocates and scientists up to and including the surgeon general. No lie was too big to tell, no bit of pseudo-science too ridiculous to pass off as legitimate. Parents, if you have teenagers considering a career in p.r., have them read this first. I can't remember the last time I read a more scathing indictment of corporate malfeasance.

One thing that surprised me about The Cigarette Century is how well it's written, given that the author is, well, a college professor. Whether he's describing laboratory work or the intricacies of a lawsuit, Brandt seldom lets the story drag; he has a fine sense of what detail to use and when to stop using it. The worst that can be said is that the book feels "textbooky" in spots, which is probably to be expected given that Brandt is a Harvard lecturer and not Christopher Buckley. The Cigarette Century isn't exactly beach reading, but for anyone interested in tobacco, public relations, medicine or law, I promise you won't miss Ravi Shankar. Well, maybe a little. ·

Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair and the author of four books, including "Barbarians at the Gate."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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