The Cigarette Century

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I had lunch yesterday with Harvard professor Allan Brandt, whose new history of the cigarette industry, The Cigarette Century, appears on the cover of Sunday’s Washington Post Book World. His book is eye-opening, engaging, well-told, frightening, and, above all, necessary. Recently, Brandt wrote an op-ed piece for the LA Times, in which he argues that a successful attempt to quit smoking by Barack Obama will actually be a victory for the tobacco industry because it will prove that smoking is an individual choice. They’ll say, “Well, if Barack can quit because he wants to, then you can too.” Brandt writes:

For every American like Obama who may successfully quit, there are “replacement smokers” in foreign lands. When Americans and others in Western developed nations began quitting in greater numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, the industry ramped up its efforts abroad, often with the assistance of the U.S. trade representative. Philip Morris International now sells more than four times as many cigarettes as its American sister company.

This dramatic rise in global consumption will prove disastrous in the future, especially in poorer countries. While 100 million people worldwide died of tobacco-induced diseases in the 20th century, the World Health Organization now predicts that nearly 1 billion such deaths will occur in this century.

. . . .

If Obama quits, no doubt Philip Morris will be the first to congratulate him. After all, won’t that prove that anyone can stop anytime he wants to? If only that were true. Then the global epidemic of tobacco deaths would be coming to a precipitous end instead of spiraling upward. As the tobacco executives know all too well, a new smoker is born every minute — and they are ready with a pack of Marlboros.

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