‘The Cigarette’ Review: No Smoking, Please

Source: By Barton Swaim, Editorial Page Editor, Wall Street Journal • Posted: Monday, October 14, 2019

Until the 1960s, liberal government policies ensured the success of the tobacco industry. Then came the surgeon general’s report.

Surgeon General Luther Terry displays a long-awaited report on smoking and health in 1964. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The political philosopher Kenneth Minogue, in his classic study “The Liberal Mind” (1963), memorably compared modern liberalism in its prime to St. George slaying the dragon. From the 16th century to the 19th, the dragons were enormous: religious intolerance, slavery and the slave trade, wretched prison conditions. But liberalism, unlike St. George, did not know when to retire, and in the 20th century it “grew breathless in [its] pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons—for the big dragons were now harder to come by.”

The cigarette was one of those small dragons, but a decrepit liberalism has laid it low. Sarah Milov’s “The Cigarette: A Political History” tells the story of how this happened, taking us from the rise of the tobacco industry in the Southeastern United States in the 19th century to the protracted court battles that nearly obliterated cigarette manufacturers in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Ms. Milov, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, writes with the moral earnestness of a liberal dragon-slayer. There is no doubt who the dragons are in her story. Cigarette companies, out of a desire to deny or at least complicate the claim of a direct link between smoking and disease, produced “scientific subterfuge”; the tobacco industry’s lobbying arm, the Tobacco Institute, disseminated “propaganda.” These and many similar unflattering descriptors seem out of place in a historical monograph. Ms. Milov’s zeal for the antismoking cause sometimes appears a tad propagandistic itself, as when she writes that “even with the substantial reduction in smoking rates, more people die every year from tobacco-related disease than murder, suicides, alcohol, automobile accidents, and AIDS combined.” The endnote cites a page on the website tobaccofreekids.org, which relies on a 2014 surgeon general’s report that estimates the number of “people who die each year from their own cigarette smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke” to be more than 480,000. But a person who dies of diabetes exacerbated by smoking (or from being around people who smoke) does not die “from” smoking in the same way a murder victim dies from being shot or strangled. The implied suggestion that smoking dwarfs murder as a societal problem is preposterous.

Photo: WSJ

The Cigarette

By Sarah Milov
Harvard, 394 pages, $35

“The Cigarette” is otherwise an impressive work of scholarship evincing years of spadework in primary and secondary sources. It’s also, apart from a whiff here and there of academic jargon, a well-told story. Ms. Milov has an eye for detail. The book’s crucial chapter, to take one lovely example, recounts the publication of Surgeon General Luther Terry’s 1964 report positing a causal connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. The report was a media sensation and signaled the beginning of the cigarette’s slow decline. Terry, we learn, went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the committee of experts charged with producing the report was politically and scientifically unimpeachable. Of the 10 members of the committee, five were smokers. “Throughout 1963,” Ms. Milov reports, “the panel convened in a room at the National Library of Medicine. The air was thick with smoke and the table covered in papers and ashtrays.”

Another absorbing passage involves Earl Butz. Most readers of this review will recall Butz, if they recall him at all, as the secretary of agriculture for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford who in 1976 was forced to resign for uttering an insanely racist remark. What I didn’t know was that Butz, a native of Indiana, opposed and tried to dismantle the system of farm subsidies—including the vast price-support system from which the tobacco industry benefited. Butz understood that small farms could not command prices without consolidating, and that subsidies only encouraged inefficiency and dependency. As a consequence tobacco-state Democrats hated him and, though hardly broad-minded on racial issues themselves, were happy to see him go.

At the heart of the book is this remarkable irony: Liberal government policies first enabled the cigarette to prevail in American society, then targeted it for destruction. On every other page of the book’s first three chapters, we read of some government board or commission or agency or state-backed association working to protect or strengthen the tobacco industry. During World War I, the War Industries Board gave the tobacco industry preferential treatment, and soldiers received cigs along with other rations. The New Deal introduced an array of laws and regulations (many of them ably explained by Ms. Milov) designed to prop up the tobacco industry. During World War II the federal government drove up the price of tobacco by buying up all the manufacturers’ stock for troops in the war effort. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century tobacco was protected in various ways from foreign competition. An assortment of post-New Deal programs aimed at strengthening farmers—including tobacco farmers—did so by subsidizing them for not producing portions of their acreage. And so on.

Having created the tobacco industry’s premier product, or at least guaranteed its dominance, liberal government policies then had to kill it. In the 1960s, Ms. Milov writes, the public-interest law movement—a group of lawyers and academics inspired in part by the progressive legal theorist Charles Reich —aimed to rebuke “a system in which corporations, well-funded interest groups, and politically favored constituencies held disproportionate power.” In the case of the cigarette, of course, those corporations, interest groups and favored constituencies were the creations and beneficiaries of New Deal liberalism. But that was the past; the cigarette now had to be destroyed. Hence the steady increases in cigarette taxes, public ad campaigns shaming smokers out of their habit, smoking bans in public and eventually private buildings, and of course class-action lawsuits against cigarette companies—all undertaken to wipe out what earlier generations, believing themselves no less humane and forward-thinking than ours, had sought to cultivate.

Mr. Swaim is an editorial-page writer at the Journal.