The Cigarette: A Political History, by Sarah Milov

Mateusz Zatoński is disappointed by an ambitious overview of the development of smoking

December 5, 2019
Source: istock

Shortly after being transferred in 1975 to an office shared with several heavy smokers, Donna Shimp began to suffer severe allergic reactions. Her long-time employer, the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company, offered two solutions: wear a gas mask to work or accept a job switch involving lower pay. When faced with a similar choice, Paul Smith, a technician at a Western Electric office in Missouri, decided to wear a respiratory helmet to work, earning him the nickname “Darth Vader”.

It is in the chapters telling these stories of individuals at the front line of the struggle for non-smokers’ rights that Sarah Milov’s book really comes to life. She successfully weaves them into the broader tapestry of tobacco politics in the US between the 1960s and the 1980s. With Big Tobacco largely uninhibited by regulation and at the peak of its commercial and political power, she evocatively describes an era in which smoking was the social norm – “ashtrays in the homes of nonsmokers were monuments to smokers’ supremacy”.

However, with the health effects of smoking increasingly in the public spotlight, disgruntled non-smokers were turning tobacco-control activists. “Resentment was a defining emotion of the 1970s, and anti-smoking activists cultivated it, drawing forth political grievance where personal irritation and self-blame had existed before.” Shimp sued her company in 1976, establishing a precedent in the fight for smoke-free workplaces. She rode a rising tide of anti-tobac+co advocacy, involving public health scientists, Washington-based lawyers and highly vocal grass-roots organisations across the US.

The author is sympathetic to tobacco control but does not shy away from pointing out the occasional arrogance of the movement that championed it. In their attempts to employ the language of civil rights, anti-smoking advocates sometimes went as far as drawing parallels between non-smokers’ rights and the African American freedom struggle. Milov is critical of this tendency of a movement that remained largely middle class and white “to deploy the rhetoric of revolution within the safe confines of suburban liberalism”. She convincingly argues that this propensity, sometimes combined with overt contempt towards smokers, goes some way in explaining today’s socio-economic disparities in tobacco use.

Other chapters suffer from a lack of clear focus. Milov’s attempt at telling a story spanning a period from the dawn of mass-produced cigarettes in the late 19th century to the birth of e-cigarettes in the 21st inevitably invites comparisons with the seminal histories of smoking in the US: Richard Kluger’s Ashes to Ashes (1996), Allan Brandt’s The Cigarette Century (2007) and Robert Proctor’s Golden Holocaust (2011). The Cigarette emerges as a derivative book, covering ground familiar to anyone with an interest in tobacco history. Although Milov tries to apply a novel angle by highlighting the close ties between the US government and the tobacco and farming lobbies, the book’s narrative often wanders, with many sections failing to engage with this theme altogether.

With the growing number of English-language international tobacco histories such as Mary Neuburger’s Balkan Smoke and Tricia Starks’ Smoking under the Tsars, there is an opportunity to shine a new light on well-known episodes in US tobacco history by employing more comparative perspectives. Unfortunately, The Cigarette, despite its ambitious title, falls short of doing this.

Mateusz Zatoński is a research associate in the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath. His most recent publication (co-authored with Allan Brandt), is “Divide and conquer? E-cigarettes as a disruptive technology in the history of tobacco control” (2019).

The Cigarette: A Political History
By Sarah Milov
Harvard University Press
400pp, £28.95
ISBN 9780674241213
Published 25 October 2019


Print headline: Thank you for not smoking

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