Books: Sex, Lies and Cigarettes in America

In the last few years, America has developed a taste for books and movies that cover its favorite vices in seamy and sometimes delicious detail, then promptly expound on how dangerous those vices are and how wrong it is that industry peddles them freely. Sure, the argument goes, sex, drugs and fast food can be delightful—but here are a hundred good reasons to stay away from them. Only a writer of great skill can make this kind of case without verging on the neo-Puritanical and alienating readers. Allan Brandt is one of these, and a master of the genre. His first book, "No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880" (Oxford), probably scared a lot of people out of bed, but it also provided some fascinating stories in the process. Now comes "The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America" (Basic). At 600 pages, it's an academically rigorous indictment of the industry, its deceptive practices and its devastating impact on public health. But the book is also, in parts, surprisingly fun.

Brandt, a professor of the history of medicine at Harvard University, understands the illicit appeal of cigarettes, because he once felt it himself. At age 7, he visited New York City and immediately fixated on a giant Camel ad looming over Times Square. "The sheer size of the display, the wafting of the smoke, and the commercial tumult left me in a state of awe," he writes. "Certainly I was already aware from my parents' warnings that smoking was 'bad for you.' Perhaps this threat was yet another reason why the Camel sign held my attention in ways that the art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art could not." The story shows a knowing compassion, and it's shrewdly placed at the beginning of the book, setting the tone for what's to come. Brandt may not like it if you smoke, but don't stop reading, he's saying, because he isn't going to scold you.

Instead, Brandt aims his bromides at the tobacco industry. Mostly, he allows it to hang itself with its own words and images. The book contains a section of Art Nouveau-era ads, which can also be seen on the companion Web site. Several from the 1930s push an unexpected benefit of a smoking habit: it's healthy! Camels "stimulate digestion in a pleasant, natural way," and if those are too harsh, perhaps you'll prefer Lucky Strikes, which are "your throat protection against irritation, against cough." A similar Luckies ad, featuring a smiling young doctor, urges customers to "give your throat a vacation [and] smoke a fresh cigarette." Still another campaign points out that cigarettes can ward off "the shock of facing what your figure may become" with age, provided you live long enough for gravity to take its toll. You can almost see the ghosts of admen rising up from the pages, helpfully suggesting tobacco as a cure for the obesity epidemic.

That's not to say "The Cigarette Century" belongs on the shelf next to that other classic work of humor on this subject, Christopher Buckley's "Thank You for Smoking." The latter's smart, tart look at the industry had the virtue of being untrue—it was fiction. Brandt's book is all fact, and as such it's much darker. You'll laugh at those vintage cigarette ads until you cry, and you may already be weeping by the time you get there. A mere 10 pages after his charming story about the Camel Man, Brandt throws out a statistic so grim it's almost unbelievable: "today, tobacco still kills more than 435,000 U.S. citizens each year (more than HIV, alcohol, illicit drugs, suicide and homicide combined)."

If the numbers don't get to you, the primary sources will. "The Cigarette Century" echoes the anti-tobacco hearings and trials of the 1990s, as did two previous histories, "Smokescreen: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Coverup" (Addison-Wesley) and the Pulitzer-winning "Ashes to Ashes: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris" (Vintage).  Brandt was a star witness at some of those hearings, which ultimately left the tobacco industry a lot more abashed; here, he draws on the reams of documents that became public because of them. He cites remarkable testimony from trials, including this gem from 1997: "According to Andrew Schindler, CEO of R.J. Reynolds, cigarettes were 'no more addictive than carrots.' 'Carrot addiction?' asked [attorney Stanley] Rosenblatt. 'Yes,' responded Schindler. 'There's British research on carrots.'"

But fear not, this isn't just a transcript from C-SPAN. Brandt knows the hearings have been, well, heard—and that, at this point, surely no one over the age of 12 can honestly say he doesn't know that cigarettes are unhealthy and addictive. In that sense, Brandt's job has already been done, and there's no need for further polemics. But this book is more ambitious than that, and as such, it ought to serve as a model for public-health advocates everywhere. Yes, it says, smoking and plenty of other vices can be horribly unhealthy—but campaigns to cut down on them don't have to be a drag.