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Revolutionary Road, Allan Brandt's Cigarette Century

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Revolutionary Road, Allan Brandt's Cigarette Century

Picture of Jeff  Kelly Lowenstein

This post discusses the film Revolutionary Road and Allan Brandt's book, The Cigarette Century.

Jeff Kelly Lowenstein's blog
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Dunreith and I watched Revolutionary Road Friday night.

The film adaptation of Richard Yates‘ novel that starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet did not move me nearly as much as previous films directed by Sam Mendes, my eighth grade classmate at Magdalen College School in Oxford, like American Beauty.

But it did have plenty of cigarettes.

Winselt, DiCaprio and his occasional paramour Zoe Kazan all light up at different points in the film, which is set in post-World War II American suburbia.

Historian and my father’s friend Allan Brandt does a brilliant job of tracing the usage, meaning of, and battle to defeat, cigarettes and their widespread consumption in his rich and fascinating book, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America.

Brandt begins the work on a personal note-his initial sighting, at age 7, of Joe Camel in Time Square. The image intoxicated him, as it has so many other people since.

The personal is prelude to the historical.

Brandt then moves into a brief history of pre-20th century tobacco production and consumption, making the point that it was not until the late 1880s that a consensus existed among company executive to move aggressively into this comparatively untapped market.

They did so with a vengeance.

One of the most impressive parts of Cigarette Century is how Brandt understands, analyzes and ariculates the links between the intertwined cultural, scientific, legal and political dimensions of cigarettes in the United States.

For example, he shows convincingly how advertisers successfully linked their consumption to long-held American values of individual agency and independence to attain growing levels of usage during the early parts of the century. This contributed both to a push to restrict their consumption, in part through people who wanted to prohibit alcohol and methodological breakthroughs among scientists seeking first to show cigarettes’ deleterious effects, and then to prove a causal connection between smoke inhalation and cancer for smokers and nonsmokers alike.

While back on its heels for a time, the industry fought back in the 50s and 60s, generating a bogus ‘controversy’ about the studies that linked smoking and cancer-a ‘debate’that is eerily reminiscent of the ‘controversy’ cited by global warming opponents, many of whom also have industry ties-while at the same time creating new filtered cigarettes that allegedly did less harm to the smokers’ lungs.

The paths to political remedies and legal consequences are both long, twisted and ably shown by Brandt.

The landmark multi-billion dollar settlement against that industry that forestalled subsequent legislation was both a landmark achievement and a relief for an industry that had successfully set its sights on a global market.

Brandt wraps up the book by stating clearly what is at stake for the global community in the upcoming century:

“It has been conservatively estimated that 100 million people around the world died from tobacco related diseases in the twentieth century. Through the first half of that century, the health risks of smoking had yet to be scientifically demonstrated. In this century, in which we have known tobacco’s health effects from the first day, the death toll is predicted to be one billion.

“This is a pandemic … Never in human history had product been so popular, so profitable and so deadly.”

How we deal with the pandemic, he argues, depends both on individual choice, but also on an honest assessment of the social nature of risks and their movement across the globe.

In the epilogue, Brandt returns to a personal interaction with tobacco, and in so doing, reveals his .

This time, though, rather than being a starry-eyed young boy in Times Square, he is a tenured professor at Harvard who is approached about becoming involved in cigarette litigation. Brandt writes about how he overcomes his hesitancy to enter the legal fray due to his code of professional conduct of striving for historical accuracy rather than legal advocacy by conducting a clear-eyed and morally based evaluation of his role in public life and civil society.

“The stakes are high, and there is much yet to do,” he writes in the book’s final sentence.

Those who want to understand why such action is necessary would be better served spending the two hours they might have devoted to watching Revolutionary Road to becoming engrossed in this informative, wide-ranging and engagingly written book.

On the other hand, those with less time can just check out Brandt on The Daily Show instead: