The Cigarette Century
Allan Brandt
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Buy *The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America* by Allan Brandt online

The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America
Allan Brandt
Basic Books
640 pages
January 2009
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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I live in North Carolina, one of the states with a major stake in the tobacco industry. The principal founders of the cigarette craze in the 20th - or "cigarette" - century, James "Buck" Duke and R. J. Reynolds, sprang from the North Carolina heartland, and Reynolds paid his home city the compliment of naming two of his most popular brands after it: Winston and Salem.

Before 1900, most tobacco in America was consumed in the form of "chaw," nearly exclusively by men, and some men, those with more money, smoked cigars. A devilishly clever device for rolling shredded tobacco into short, slender sticks was invented in 1881 by a man named James Bonsack. Duke partnered with Bonsack, and the modern "coffin nail" was born. By the time America entered World War I, many young men had taken up the cigarette craze. And why not? Cigarettes were cheap and soothing, seemingly the ideal panacea for modern ennui.

Brandt's book reveals that cigarettes incorporated two elements – mellow golden tobacco and flue curing – that combined to make cigarette smoke, unlike harsh and more flavorful cigar smoke, very inhalable. It took a hundred years to understand why this unique combination is both addictive and deadly.

With young men hooked on cigs, especially after smokes were packed in their ration kits when they went off the fight the Huns, it only remained to get women, fifty percent of the market, hooked as well. To accomplish this, cigarettes became the handmaiden of the newly burgeoning mass-marketing industry, the "ad men" who were increasingly able not just to tell the public to keep buying products that were already available but to prod them to buy products newly invented, just because they were advertised - a snake-eating-its-tail loop that helped men like Reynolds and Duke addict a nation.

By the 1950s, a generation had grown up in America hung up on cigarettes. No film star was considered mature and sexy unless he or she smoked at least the occasional ciggy, with the enviable sensuous look of satisfaction and toughness that accompanied the act. Women were especially susceptible to the advertising blitz because for them, smoking represented personal freedom, something they were keen to gain. Despite a few voices way out in the wilderness suggesting that cigarettes were evil and would destroy moral character, the majority of Americans thought that the devil's weed was at least as good as sliced bread. "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet," the ad masters wheedled, and "they satisfy." People smoked on TV. Women broke the last puritanical barrier by smoking in public.

Then they all began to die. From lung cancer, throat cancer, emphysema, stroke and other of what we now know to be smoking related diseases. Dying younger than they should. It wasn't a big surprise – the persistent cough and sore throat were early warning signs. Everyone really knew that you can't breathe in a pack or two of smokes a day and not expect some kickback from your body. But for every negative inkling of smoking's deadliness, the ad men and the tobacco barons parried with contrary messages, messages they had the power to put before the public in a barrage that drowned out medical advice and common sense.

The story of how cigarettes went from being socially acceptable to socially déclassé, from being prevalent and enjoyed to being banned and scorned, is the well-researched, prize-winning saga that Brandt expounds from his bully pulpit. From reading The Cigarette Century, I was dismayed to learn that the ultimate settlement with the big tobacco companies was really a sorry compromise that made states involved in the suit against them complicit in the very success that had outraged the general public. Basically, the settlement forced, or allowed, states to share in tobacco profits in the name of education against smoking. How ironic is that?

There are few books that you will read this year that will inform you more and make you ponder as deeply our national character. Written by a scholar and an expert witness, the book's weight as a reference work does not stand in the way of its readability. It's a complex and compelling story about the thrall of an addictive drug and the legal means used to literally shove it down our throats, and how we gave it up, and how it didn't give us up, mocking us still with massive sales and yet more addicted, unhealthy customers in the Third World. Read it and weep.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2009

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