10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
One of the best books of the year,
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This review is from: The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America (Hardcover)
Allan Brandt's new book, "The Cigarette Century", is as comprehensive a study on one subject as I've seen in a long time. Written crisply and authoritatively, Brandt covers the tobacco industry from the end of the nineteenth century through today with cigarettes as his main focus. What he has researched, uncovered and passed onto the reader in an expansive (yet truly condensed) form is terrific. His book is a blockbuster.
Cigarettes have been around for a long while in the United States but not until James Bonsack's rolling machine came into play in 1881 (churning out 200 cigarettes per minute) could they be distributed on a wide-scale basis. It wasn't until World War I, however, that the national demand for the product really took off, and did it ever! Brandt's book is a parallel study of American sociological history of the twentieth century as cigarettes have been at the center of so much of our cultural life. Women began smoking in earnest in the 1920s and Hollywood added its own weight with countless movie stars puffing away in countless films to remind the public of the "joys" of smoking. Advertisements abounded and cigarettes were here to stay.
Along came the 1950s and things began to change. This is where Brandt's book really takes off as he begins to shape the "controversy" between the industry and those determined to warn Americans of the risks of smoking. The Surgeon General's report of 1964 declaring smoking to be hazardous to one's health (later packaging warnings reminded the smoker of the same) was a big first step as the public was beginning to question the safety of cigarettes. While more and more research on the dangers of cigarette smoking was made public, the tobacco companies fought tooth and nail to assure Americans that all was well. Lawsuits began to be filed on an increasing level yet the industry was always one step ahead of its detractors. Tobacco companies insisted that safety was a primary concern, but being "remarkably effective in resisting serious health initiatives", they were not. Brandt concludes "we now know a good deal about how this goal was achieved: a careful mixture of reassurance, half-truths, innovative public relations, disinformation, and deception." Calling their actions "the crime of the century", (the title of his epilogue) the author has, by this point, made a careful and compelling argument for that chapter's title.
In my lifetime there have been three major social changes that I've noticed, one being that there are many fewer smokers today in the United States than when I was being raised. Yet, as Brandt points out, tobacco companies learned that if they can't sell as many cigarettes at home they'll export them...with no regard to the health of other nations' citizens. The industry seems to be winning again at the expense of those whose health fails after using their product, creating a pandemic just under the radar screen.
I highly recommend Allan Brandt's "The Cigarette Century". It's an eye-opener, extremely well-written and well-paced, and will either give you a new angle at which to look at cigarettes or reinforce the thoughts you may have had already. I think it is one of the best books of the year.