The Cigarette Century and Beyond

We needed a truthful account of how cigarettes have become the highest selling addictive drug in the history of the human race, lawfully. Alan Brandt, Harvard Professor of History of Medicine and Science, and author of the recently published “The Cigarette Century – The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America” tells us the extra-ordinary story of the rise of the “modern cigarette” in the 20th century. Dr. Brandt is one of the U.S.’s leading expert witnesses for federal and state tobacco-related lawsuits, after spending nearly twenty years researching on this topic. In the 2004 U.S. vs. Philip Morris trial, Dr. Brandt was cross-examined for nearly two days, and for the first time in U.S. history, tobacco companies were found to have breached Federal statutes on racketeering. Dr. Brandt was quoted 200 times in the verdict, apparently.

The modern cigarette is a carefully merchandised cultural and business icon, very different from the rolled tobacco leaves that Native Americans smoked. The social branding has come through both Hollywood and women’s magazines, cleverly disguised through feminine or masculine idols. Cigarettes were used to portray various emotions in Hollywood films, way back in the 1930s and 40s, and soon became a method of self-expression. Dr. Brandt describes it as “fashioning” cigarette behavior.

The cigarette industry’s response to the debate that lung cancer is largely due to cigarette smoking has always been amusing. In a recent talk, Dr. Brandt cites examples of cigarette ads from the 50s — “More doctors smoke Camel than any other brand,” “Just What the doctor ordered – the new Miracle Filter,” and “Play safe. Smoke Lucky strikes.” This was the start of manipulating science to run a disinformation campaign, that is still going strong! No wonder that many in the cigarette industry has never found any convincing evidence that cigarettes cause lung cancer. A striking example that Dr. Brandt provides comes from an archived document with R. J. Reynolds, 1953 that in effect states, “There is no convincing proof that cigarette filters provide any protection against carcinogens. But we have found that varying the pH of filters can change its color from yellow to brown; and this can be a valuable marketing tool!”

It came as a shock to me to learn that a recent study shows that over the last 10 years, packaged cigarettes are coming with an extra 10 percent nicotine, compared to any other decade. The cigarette industry meticulously monitors the amount of nicotine in cigarettes, and this fact is based on data published by the industry itself. Dr. Brandt concludes, “As Americans are trying to quit, the industry is trying to make their product more highly addictive!”

The debate about who is accountable for the hugely successful 20th century American phenomenon of smoking, will continue to rage for a while, while cigarette companies continue to merchandise their brands across the world, across all economies. Stocks of cigarette companies on the New York Stock Exchange are looking healthier than ever they were in the cigarette century.


Allan Brandt – How Accountable are Smokers for their Addiction?

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
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