In this smoke-filled room of a book, full of secrets and closed files, medical historian and expert witness Brandt reveals just what Big Tobacco has wrought in the last 125 years.
Mass production requires mass consumption. So when the Bonsack machine came along in 1882, future tycoon James Duke, blessed with “a capacious, even global vision for his industry” and able to roll out 100,000 cigarettes a day, came to the realization that the things would have to supplant chewing tobacco, pipes and cigars in order to earn their keep. How to do so? From the start, writes Brandt, Duke pressed an aggressive program combining innovations in technology, advertising and marketing. His Tobacco Trust, though soon broken up by federal regulators, was successful well beyond Duke’s plans, in part through the accident of changing cultural norms, in part because of deliberate recruitment of women and children as smokers. As Brandt relates, the major producers benefited, too, from conflict and empire; during World War I, General Pershing said, “You ask me what we need to win this war. I answer tobacco, as much as bullets.” The manly accessory became necessity for the conscious hipster, thanks to skillful product placement and the insistence of Big Tobacco that cigarette-smoking was not only good for the image but even good for the body. Brandt, an able archivist, cites internal documents showing that the tobacco industry has long been aware of the deleterious effects of smoking—and that it has blocked proposals to produce safer goods, if such were possible, through “legal counsel eager to avoid tacit public admission of the existing product’s dangers.” Whereas in mid-century, about half of Americans smoked, today fewer than a fourth do. Still, warns Brandt, an important expert witness in the RICO trial of 2003, Big Tobacco remains influential—in part, he adds, thanks to “Bush appointees at the Department of Justice.”
Grist for an anti-smoking campaigner’s mill, and testimony to the banality of evil.