The Cigarette: A Political History 
by Sarah Milov.
Harvard, 395 pp., £28.95, October 2019, 978 0 674 24121 3
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The story of smoking in the United States is usually presented as a struggle between heroic scientists and activists on the one hand, fighting to get the truth out to the public, and mendacious tobacco industry executives on the other, manipulating members of Congress. Eventually truth and health prevail. In The Cigarette: A Political History, Sarah Milov provides a more interesting and complicated account. The rise and fall of the cigarette in the US was, she shows, intertwined with the country’s transition from the associational state created by the New Deal to the stripped-down neoliberal state of our own time. And a major advance in public health was accomplished through the mobilisation of a parsimonious social vision. This wasn’t just a tale of heroes and villains.

It’s hard to lament the demise of the smoky world of the mid-20th century. The anti-smoking crusade of the 1980s and 1990s resulted in healthier workplaces, but the arguments that got us there were mostly neoliberal ones. Reformers said that non-smokers took fewer sick days, fewer breaks; they rarely referred to smoking as a public health problem that might have something to do with class and racial inequality, lack of education, or unemployment. Yielding to or breaking the smoking habit was all about will, choice and moral responsibility. Who needs a public health system when sickness is a personal failure?

We are now in a world, Milov says, where ‘the smoker stands alone on a street corner and the farmer stands alone against the cigarette giants.’ (They join the unorganised industrial or clerical worker, the fitfully employed freelancer, the hospital orderly waiting for the early bus.) To frame such scenes of fragmentation, Milov quotes her mentor, the intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers: in the late 20th century, he writes, accounts of human experience once ‘thick with context, social circumstance, institutions and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, desire’. The isolated smoker, shamed into skulking on the edge of the righteous community, embodied ‘choice, agency, performance, desire’. There was no need to explain his behaviour by invoking social circumstances or institutional constraints: like everyone else, he was responsible for his own choices. Autonomy reigned. A society infatuated by such simplifications was a perfect playground for frenetic financial dealings.

The cigarette century started slowly. Before the First World War, smoking had doubtful associations for most Americans. James Buchanan Duke’s American Tobacco Company pioneered the manufacture of desire by surrounding cigarettes with Orientalist fantasy, but the unintended consequence of such advertising was to reinforce the connection in the popular mind between smoking and foreigners or immigrants: hot-blooded Italians, swarthy Turks, but not manly Anglo-Saxons. Health reformers led by Lucy Page Gaston of the Anti-Cigarette League warned that cigarettes promoted effeminacy in boys and mannishness in girls; James Harvey Kellogg, the cereal king, worried that male smokers risked ‘premature degeneration of the sex glands’. Businessmen and economists opposed smoking at work as a threat to productivity.

The war transformed cigarettes from symbols of foreignness to emblems of patriotism. Duke and other cigarette manufacturers claimed that doughboys needed ‘tobacco as much as bullets’, while moral reformers came to believe that smoking inoculated soldiers against more serious vices, such as ‘intoxicating liquors and lewd women’. After the war, cigarette production soared and smoking became part of everyday life. Tobacco companies spent lavishly on advertisements, some of them aimed at women, that made cigarettes appear central to a range of sometimes contradictory states of being – excitement, concentration, stimulation, relaxation. By the end of the 1920s, at least in the symbolic universe of advertising, Milov writes, the cigarette was both ‘a symptom of and cure for modern times’.

It was also an increasingly valuable commodity, both for tobacco farmers and cigarette manufacturers. These companies colluded to control prices at tobacco auctions, an institution that entered the precincts of folk Americana (a later Lucky Strike TV commercial featured an auctioneer chanting unintelligibly before finishing with the words: ‘Sold American!’). But according to Milov, tobacco auctions were actually ‘a simulacrum of competition, an elaborate staging of supposed rivalry’ by companies conspiring against ‘the lone farmer awaiting a verdict by a corporate cabal on the value of a year’s worth of family labour’. Tobacco companies controlled prices in the present, and encouraged overproduction in order to depress prices in the future. Farmers knew what was happening, but had to accept what they were offered. Throughout the 1920s, they tried fitfully and ineffectually to fight the auction system by forming co-operatives.

The Great Depression made the plight of farmers more urgent, and brought the associational state to the rescue. The corporatist agenda of the early New Deal led to the creation of the National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, aimed at co-ordinating efforts to prevent overproduction. New Dealers believed, as Milov puts it, that ‘the problems faced by farmers and labourers, producers and consumers were connected, a seamless whole of surplus in the face of want.’ But the associational state wasn’t a social democratic utopia: it depended on the support of the Jim Crow South as well as on collaboration between the federal government and interest groups – farmers, industrialists, unionised workers. These groups were most successful when they were well-organised, well-connected and white: all characteristics of the tobacco growers who benefited most from New Deal agricultural policy.

The Agricultural Adjustment Administration gave farmers government subsidies to keep acreage fallow, protecting farm prices by creating scarcity. This policy enacted the great scandal of capitalism, the fabrication of scarcity amid plenty; it also epitomised, as Milov writes, the ‘sclerotic decision-making structures that privileged the organised few at the expense of the disorganised many’. This is not the version of the New Deal held dear by the contemporary American left. Still, the associational state did preserve some populist aims by ‘valorising the sweated labour of white farmers’ who, in taking on the cigarette companies, were combating ‘the power of organised capital’. In 1935, the Supreme Court declared both the NRA and AAA unconstitutional, and began to look suspiciously at the Tobacco Inspection Act, which was intended to restrain abuses of the auction system. Speculators known as ‘pinhookers’ had emerged: they bought cheap, sold high, and made a little extra on the side. The act aimed to raise prices for the average grower, limit the pinhookers’ opportunities to make side bets and eliminate the warehouse ‘pets’ – wealthy farmers who received favours from the cigarette companies.

But the Supreme Court’s ruling left open the possibility of regulating agricultural supply by other means. In 1938, Congress approved FDR’s revised version of the AAA. It allowed farmers to vote in an annual referendum on price supports, which would maintain a minimum price for tobacco. They responded by voting against the subsidy programme and returning to overproduction – until demand dived the following year, when the start of the Second World War shut down the huge European market. In 1939, 90 per cent of US farmers voted for crop controls. But there was a new market for cigarettes at home, led by army recruits. ‘Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War,’ the American Tobacco Company announced. After the war, cigarettes became symbols of democratic consumption on both sides of the Atlantic, and the industry looked for ways to expand its reach. Tobacco Associates, a non-profit, grower-funded organisation, had a great deal of influence on public policy; its head, Jack Hutson, was a shrewd and energetic operator, equally at home in government and business circles.

Under Hutson’s leadership, Tobacco Associates turned the federal tobacco programme into a global smoking programme. Their first move was to ensure that Congress included cigarettes in the Marshall Plan. In effect, the US was ‘offering a smoke to a stranger who was down at the heels and in need’. Not everyone was keen: the French insisted on their Gauloises. But Hutson did get tobacco included in the Food for Peace programme. While all tobacco farmers benefited from government largesse, most of it went to the more affluent and better organised (and white). Interest groups such as the Farm Bureau represented an elite, not a mass membership, and concealed their debt to the state through a rhetoric of community, family, private property and voluntarism.

The golden age of the cigarette didn’t last long. In the early 1950s, statistical studies began to confirm the link between smoking and lung cancer. The industry was forced to go on the offensive; its ‘Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers’, which appeared in hundreds of newspapers in January 1954 under the sponsorship of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, was the start of a decades-long effort to cast doubt on epidemiological findings without exactly refuting them. In 1964, the US surgeon general’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health released a report which unequivocally declared that cigarettes can cause cancer. It was a perfect expression of the associational state: panels of experts from the private and public sectors together fashioned an authoritative consensus. But by stressing the dangers posed by a well-organised industry, and by recommending that cigarette packets carry health warnings, the report also opened the door to a new idea of government, one that allowed greater space for what citizen activists called ‘the public interest’.

The concept of the public interest had roots in the republican tradition of the 19th century and the Progressive movement before the First World War. When it returned in the 1960s, it reflected a growing suspicion that the unorganised many were at the mercy of the organised few. The sense of threat was reinforced by Ralph Nader’s research, which revealed, for instance, that a car such as the Chevrolet Corvair was ‘unsafe at any speed’, and that General Motors saw this as a public relations problem rather than a matter of public health. The movement sparked by Nader combined the active citizen with the aggrieved consumer, who sought justice through litigation rather than legislation. Aggressive whizz-kid lawyers like Victor Yannacone, who brought the first lawsuit against the makers of DDT, and John Banzhaf, who acquired the first copyright for computer code, helped develop a consumer protection movement driven by environmentalism and concerns about product safety. Their strategy was encapsulated in what Milov calls a ‘pugnacious and pithy mantra’: ‘Sue the bastards.’ The litigious approach reflected frustration with the associational state, which allowed federal agencies as well as congressmen to become servants of the industries they were meant to be regulating. Litigation was the last resort of unorganised consumers; it revealed the contraction of civic culture in late 20th-century America. Having given up on two of the three branches of federal government, public interest lawyers depended on the survival of a public-spirited judiciary – an increasingly fragile hope.

Despite Banzhaf’s zeal for lawsuits, his biggest victory came from a memo he wrote to the Federal Communications Commission in 1967, arguing that its new Fairness Doctrine meant that anti-smoking advertisements should get equal airtime on television with cigarette commercials: the FCC agreed, 7-0. The Fairness Doctrine was intended to create informed consent. Children needed to be inoculated against pro-cigarette advertising, then as adults they could make an informed choice – to smoke or not to smoke – and not be hustled off like pigs to slaughter. Prime-time advertisements could celebrate the pleasures of a smoker’s life but an equal number had to show the horrors of his death. Cigarette smoking would never be quite so glamorous again.

The crusade​ against tobacco eventually found its focus by inventing the non-smoker. Non-smokers formed a consumer-based collective identity just as identity groups were proliferating. Again, they were affluent, organised, educated and white. Their attempts to appropriate the discourse of victimhood by likening their movement to the Black struggle for equality were risibly unconvincing. At a time when the dangers of second-hand smoke were largely unknown, the impulse behind non-smokers’ rights wasn’t scientific but civic – ‘a vision of public space as an amenity to be consumed’, as Milov puts it. Non-smokers demanded to be spared the unpleasantness of smoky restaurants, planes and bus stations, even if the smoking population didn’t see the problem.

In the workplace, the anti-smoking movement had a stronger card to play: the ‘social cost’ of smoking, which activists learned to quantify. The key moment was a lawsuit brought by a telephone company employee called Donna Shimp, who suffered from headaches and rashes in the smoky office where she worked for New Jersey Bell. In 1975, Shimp sued for a smoke-free workplace on the basis of her rights as a non-smoker, but she also stressed the ‘cost factors’ of workplace smoking. If New Jersey Bell would not act on behalf of non-smokers, it might act on behalf of its bottom line – as indeed it did. Shimp and the group she founded, Environmental Improvement Associates, gestured towards the health hazards of inhaling second-hand smoke, which researchers were beginning to discern, but her argument boiled down to the claim that ‘smoking – and quite often, smokers – cost too much.’ This chimed with a new wave of management consultancy that dedicated itself to a leaner, meaner, cleaner workplace.

Data appeared to support this agenda. A time and motion study at a pool equipment manufacturer in Clifton, New Jersey purported to show that workers who smoked were between 2 per cent and 10 per cent less efficient than non-smokers. Shimp’s group estimated that 399 million workdays a year were lost to smoking. The way to ‘improve productivity overnight’, management consultants decided, was simple: end cigarette breaks and wasteful socialising. As William Weis, a management guru, put it: ‘One man does what two and a half would be doing if we still allowed smoking.’

The anti-smoking movement succeeded not only because ordinary people demanded the right to breathe clean air in public places – though that was important and necessary – but because the movement had interests in common with those who wanted to tighten labour discipline and redefine workers as ‘human capital’. Ultimately, the ideal non-smoker merged with the neoliberal self, who measures his health with precision, and implicitly his morality too. ‘This politics of bodily evaluation dovetailed with market-centric judgments of the body politic,’ Milov writes; the state’s performance was increasingly subject to market metrics and techniques – cost benefit analysis, balanced budget requirements, means testing, lowered trade barriers. This was a far cry from the associational state, which had – however imperfectly – protected many Americans from the ravages of unregulated capital and corporate power.

Things worsened for smokers in the 1980s, when the dangers of passive smoking became impossible to ignore. A Japanese study showed that the non-smoking wives of smokers had twice the mortality rate of other non-smokers, and that heavier smokers had sicker wives. In 1986, a US surgeon general’s report stressed the menace of passive smoking, though much uncertainty remained about the magnitude of the risk. A new society was emerging, which looked healthier and fairer to anti-smoking activists, and efficient, productive and prudent to management consultants. But to unions, still trying to protect the smoking break, though only a minority of their members wanted it, the new society seemed characterised by the yielding of labour’s prerogatives to management.

Union workers, like farmers, had been the beneficiaries of the associational state. Now both interest groups, agriculture and labour, were in eclipse. ‘From the ashes of tobacco corporatism arose new, cost-centred conceptions of virtuous citizenship,’ Milov writes, ‘in which Americans were judged by the scarcity of their footprint on the public ledger.’ In the new political universe, farmers and smokers were individuals responsible for their own health and economic success. Congress trimmed more and more from the tobacco subsidy programme until it finally disappeared in 2004.

The end of the programme had different meanings for different parts of the industry. For farmers, their neighbours and families, it meant the withdrawal of capital from sleepy Southern towns. Fertiliser salesmen, warehouse workers and shippers all lost out. The programme had underwritten the tax base, and allowed state and local governments to provide social services, schools, churches and hospitals. It was time to look elsewhere for support. But for the cigarette companies, the end of the programme offered fresh opportunities. In a classic neoliberal move, they outsourced tobacco production to Brazil and other countries with lower labour costs. American farmers, like American factory workers, were too expensive. But there was still a global market for cigarettes.

Despite its cleaner air, the smoke-free world, Milov writes, is ‘a harsh and stigmatising one’, where ‘the death of a smoker can be met with the thought – sometimes tactlessly expressed aloud – “What did he expect?”’ It would be hard to find a question more revealing of the neoliberal worldview, which makes responsible self-maintenance a near sacred duty, as well as the fullest expression of citizenship.

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