You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How War Made the Cigarette

A new book explores the tangled politics behind a global addiction.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

On July 11, many thousands of people heard a fascinating story on NPR and WBUR’s Here and Now radio program, in which two esteemed historians asserted that Americans never would have been as dependent as they are on tobacco were it not for the considerable support of the U.S. government. To many, this was surely a surprising assertion, since Big Tobacco is often perceived to be at odds with big government, with its regulations and disclosure requirements and general aversion to its citizens getting sick and dying. There was only one problem: the two historians, both men, did not credit the source of the story—another historian, a woman named Sarah Milov, and her new book, The Cigarette: A Political History.

Harvard University Press, 400 pp., $35.00

Within days, the story was everywhere. It first broke in The Lily, where the article was subtitled, “They have tenure. She does not.” “Every single word they said was from my book,” Milov, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia told The Lily, which noted she was coming up for tenure within the year. Twitter exploded, and countless other publications ran stories. The two historians, Edward Ayers and Nathan Connolly, quickly apologized, as did the radio stations. To many, the incident epitomized a dynamic common in the academy, where male scholars have long taken credit for the work of female associates.

Although, as Jezebel noted, the controversy generated “significant publicity” for Milov’s book, the NPR incident itself threatened to get more attention than the history that Milov spent years unearthing. This would be a shame, for it would miss what The Cigarette really is: a nuanced and ultimately devastating indictment of government complicity with the worst excesses of American capitalism. The Cigarette looks beyond individual consumers and their choices and aims its penetrating gaze straight at the larger phenomena shaping all of our lives: the exigencies of war, the rise of organized interest groups, the fall of government regulators, and the immense, unseen influence of big business.

At the turn of the twentieth century, cigarettes were still a fairly marginal product, derided by moralists as “little white slavers,” mocked by bigots as the habit of immigrants, and eschewed by many in favor of pipes, cigars, or chewing tobacco. It took the federal government to turn the cigarette into an iconic consumer good: In 1917, Congress appropriated money to put cigarettes in the rations of soldiers preparing to fight in World War I, hoping to distract them from “more serious types of vice.” The cigarette caught on, and tobacco companies embarked on innovative advertising campaigns to ensure that the “valorization of the cigarette at war” could continue at peace. And continue it did: from 1914 to 1920, cigarettes jumped from 7 percent to 20 percent of American tobacco consumption. For the next century, federal intervention would continue to determine the cigarette’s trajectory—for good or very, very bad.

With more demand came more problems. The price of tobacco leaf fell. The farmers who planted and cultivated the flue-cured tobacco used to make cigarettes felt “weak and angry.” Their labors had made a handful of powerful white men exceptionally wealthy, but the farmers (to say nothing of the pickers, who labored under barbaric conditions, and the cigarette rollers, who’d been rendered obsolete by machines) felt exploited and undervalued by the reviled “oligopoly” of R.J. Reynolds, Liggett & Myers, Lorillard, and James B. Duke’s American Tobacco Company.

Drawing on the legacy of populist forbearers, the farmers tried to organize cooperatives so that they could dictate the price of tobacco to the companies. The companies and their allies crushed the cooperatives, through intimidation, litigation, and even outright sabotage. Eventually, salvation came in the form of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s economists, who quickly diagnosed the problem with the tobacco economy: overproduction. “Too much tobacco clogged the throat of commerce.” As part of the New Deal, federal administrators sought to control the economy and eliminate needless competition. To eliminate the overproduction in the tobacco economy, the feds created a program through which they would pay farmers not to grow tobacco, to take fertile farmland out of production so that prices paid for tobacco across the economy would remain high. Farmers who didn’t cooperate would be subject to a hefty tax. The New Deal had “transformed farmers into state administrators.”

World War II was another lucky break. Cigarette companies cannily capitalized on wartime fervor—“Lucky Strike green has gone to war!”—and the prices farmers received rose each year from 1940 to 1946. After the War, the companies dedicated themselves expanding the market for cigarettes across the country and all around the world. They invested in ever more brilliant advertising. “Cigarettes had once been a vice of immigrants and juvenile delinquents,” Milov writes. “But war, advertising, and Hollywood has helped to broaden, professionalize, and glamorize smoking’s appeal.” By 1955, nearly a quarter of American women and more than half of American men were “active smokers.”

Archive Photos / Getty Images

As a result of aggressive company lobbying, the funds given to Europe in the Marshall Plan would be used for tobacco; one billion dollars went to tobacco, “a figure that represented a third of total food aid.” Theoretically, this was meant to prop up European manufacturing economies; practically, this ensured that European cigarette companies used American leaf to make their products—and got European consumers hooked on flue-cured American-style tobacco. Tobacco companies further entrenched their expansion into foreign markets with lobbying at international fairs and trade shows. By 1949, according to one survey, between 85 and 90 percent of West Germans preferred the taste of flue-cured tobacco to the older Greek or Turkish varieties long smoked by older generations. Thus, by the middle of the twentieth century, the American cigarette had taken over the world.

The farmers were happy with this arrangement and so were the tobacco companies. Yet trouble was brewing at home. Throughout the 1950s, newspapers began running more and more stories on the disturbing link between smoking and lung cancer (a correlation that had been observed as early as 1939). For several years, tobacco companies were able to allay health fears through advertising and crafty public relations, and smoking rates continued to rise. But the federal government got involved once again when, in 1964, Surgeon General Luther Terry issued a report announcing in no uncertain terms the link between cigarettes and cancer. This began what would ultimately be a radical re-evaluation of the relationship between the government and tobacco farmers, if not tobacco companies.

The Federal Trade Commission immediately began drafting regulations that would sharply restrict cigarette company advertising—requiring, for instance, the inclusion of a health warning on all radio and television advertisements. But before these regulations could be imposed, the cigarette companies went on the defensive. Led by Fred Royster, a wealthy and well-connected warehouseman-grower known in North Carolina as “Mr. Tobacco,” and industry trade groups like the well-funded Tobacco Institute, the companies’ allies convinced Congress to eliminate the warnings for ads and water down the warning label to appear on cigarette packages. Instead of requiring, “Cigarette Smoking Is Hazardous to Your Health,” they proposed the weaker wording, “Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.” The companies—aided by DC super-lawyer (and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice) Abe Fortas—then engineered a sweetheart deal with the Department of Justice under which they could regulate their own advertising.

With the traditional mechanics of federal regulation effectively neutered, savvy public interest lawyers turned to more creative approaches. Led by the unconventional 27-year-old legal wunderkind John Banzhaf, these lawyers convinced the federal government that it had to require primetime advertisements that showed not only “the pleasures of the smoker’s life” but also “the horrors of a smoker’s death.” One such ad featured Bill Talman, the actor who portrayed the district attorney who lost his case each week to Perry Mason, speaking about his lung cancer diagnosis: “Take some advice about smoking and losing from someone who’s been doing both for years.” By the time the ad aired, he was dead.

Banzhaf, meanwhile, became a law professor at George Washington University and founded Action on Smoking and Health from his faculty office. He began corralling his students to sue agencies, successfully demanding the creation of non-smoking sections on planes. His motto was, “Sue the Bastards.”

As the 1960s became the 1970s, the philosophy of deregulation took hold. Liberals wary of the corporate capture of agencies joined conservatives skeptical of big government stifling big business, and together they convinced the government to weaken the rules requiring nonsmoking sections. As the power of agencies continued to weaken throughout the 1970s, another strategy for change had to emerge. And one did: the nonsmokers’ rights movement.

In 1971, a housewife in Maryland named Clara Gouin, whose youngest daughter was allergic to smoke, founded Group Against Smoking Pollution. GASP quickly spread through college towns and liberal enclaves, aiming to make what they called a “silent majority” as visible as possible. From Berkeley to Flint, members raised awareness of their cause and politely requested non-smoking areas at their places of work and leisure. Other activists—some affiliated with GASP, others affiliated with Banzhaf’s ASH or acting on their own—sued their workplaces, arguing that they had a “right” to freedom from smoke.

The nonsmokers’ rights movement emerged a decade before the evidence linking cancer with the inhalation of secondhand smoke. “The impulse behind calls for nonsmokers’ rights was civic, not scientific,” Milov writes. “It rested upon nonsmokers’ assertion of virtuous citizenship, and was fueled by a resentment of smokers.” Nonsmokers resented the entitlement of their smoking peers, the refusal to consider the feelings of those nearby whenever they lit up. And while Milov is often a bit hard on GASP, critiquing its adoption of the rhetoric of “liberation” even while ensconced within the “safe confines of suburban liberalism,” she insightfully charts how its members and other activists simultaneously scored big wins and let the cigarette companies off the hook in the process.

As their lawsuits met with only mixed success, middle-class activists began appealing to businesses directly, arguing that restricting smoking could be good for their bottom line—decreased sick days, reduced disability costs, less housekeeping (because smoking damaged equipment and upholstery), and smaller legal fees (because smokers were involved in twice as many accidents as nonsmokers, and nonsmokers might sue to define smoke as an occupational health hazard). A generation of neoliberal economists, and many insurance companies, agreed. (And as a result, insurance companies began selectively selling policies at reduced rates to nonsmokers.) “Ambient tobacco smoke represented a silent drain on company resources,” Milov observes, “a metaphor, perhaps, for the hidden costs of smokers themselves.” The businesses saw the light and nonsmoking policies became increasingly common throughout the 1980s.

This happened over the fierce opposition of organized labor. The unions had fought hard to win smoke breaks in the 1940s, and, if these had to go, they wanted it to be on their terms, through collective bargaining. Yet, by the 1980s, organized labor had lost much of its power. The tactics of nonsmoking activists ensured that they’d have even less. And smoke breaks—unproductive time during which workers could bond—were eliminated, with nothing but more work to take their place. “By relying upon cost-centered analyses of private behavior and unraveling decades-old collectivist programs,” Milov writes, “the nonsmokers’ rights movement refashioned what Americans believed the government owed to citizens, and what citizens owed to the government. And in their remarkable successes, they unwittingly catalyzed a conservative political strategy whose far-reaching effects are scarcely fathomable, and all too real.”

The tobacco farmers suffered too. By the 1980s, Republicans had become more skeptical of the federal tobacco program, of big government interfering with the free market; Democrats had become more skeptical of Big Tobacco, and especially its biggest congressional champion, Jesse Helms. Even Big Tobacco had soured on the federal program, since it was buying more and more leaf from farmers overseas who would grow for much cheaper. (By the end of the twentieth century, 90 percent of flue-cured and Burley tobacco was grown outside the United States.) After being weakened repeatedly over the years, the federal tobacco program finally ended in 2004. Since then, tobacco has been grown on one-year contracts between companies, which can effectively dictate whatever prices they want, and individual growers, who lack any collective bargaining rights.

When the reckoning finally came for Big Tobacco, its influence over the government ensured it would be insufficient. For years, state governments had been battling with the largest cigarette companies, demanding that they pay for the immense tobacco-related healthcare costs left in their wake. In the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the companies agreed to pay more than $200 billion to state governments for 25 years (actually a paltry sum compared to the costs of tobacco-related illnesses), but in exchange, they got something they wanted much more: “an end to class-action lawsuits and a cap on punitive judgments for individual suits.” The state governments, which depended on this money to balance budgets, had not wanted litigation to imperil the companies’ ability to continue writing them checks. To health advocates, the MSA was “an utter failure for public health and a coup for the companies.”

Today, only 15 percent of Americans smoke, down from nearly 50 percent at mid-century; anti-smoking activists are estimated to have saved 8 million American lives over 50 years. Smokers are now poorer and less educated than nonsmokers; they have higher rates of cancer; and they are constantly told it is all their fault. “From seed to smoke, the responsibility for tobacco production and consumption has been privatized and individualized.” And the tobacco companies hardly even care that fewer Americans smoke. Smoking has gone overseas, and cigarette companies now derive most of their profits from international sales. Today, some 80 percent of smokers live in low- or middle-income countries. The toll of internationalizing the cigarette will be unthinkable. As the medical historian Allan Brandt has written, by century’s end “the death toll is predicted to be one billion.”

The Cigarette, while excellent, is far from the first book to document the harm wrought by Big Tobacco. For instance, Allan Brandt’s brilliant The Cigarette Century recounted the cigarette companies’ remarkable duplicity; Richard Kluger’s magisterial Ashes to Ashes charted the tobacco wars with a novelist’s flair. None of these scholars have written a true people’s history of the cigarette—exploring the human cost of this industry on farmers, smokers, and nonsmokers. But Milov has provided the premier account of the government’s complicity with the exacting of this human cost, of the way Big Tobacco has evolved and adapted and neutralized lawmakers and regulators—and thrived. And of a billion needlessly lost lives.

The lessons of her book remain stunningly relevant today. We’re in the midst of revelations that the sugar industry similarly relied on advertising to distract consumers from its extreme addictiveness. In the NFL’s fights with former football players dying of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the League hired the same lawyers, consultants, and lobbyists that Big Tobacco used. Cellphone companies have worked tirelessly to obscure evidence of the connection between cellular radiation and all manner of negative health impacts. Even with mass shootings a daily occurrence, the gun industry has lobbied its way out of any meaningful oversight. Most noxious of all, fossil fuel companies have relied on shoddy science, constant PR, and the deliberate dissemination of doubt to cover up the connection between oil and gas and climate change—a business decision that raised short-term profits but may have doomed our entire civilization.

Will we learn from the history recounted in The Cigarette? As Milov’s book so damningly shows, larger forces have long been quietly and insidiously shaping so much of daily life: privatization, brilliant advertising, the emergence of late capitalism. When we think about how to exact justice for the largest of crimes, we must turn our attention away from individual consumers and their choices and focus squarely on those that used their tremendous power to engineer entire economies for their own benefit.