Not all puff and no substance

The Global Cigarette
November 17, 2000

The rise of the cigarette to prominence as a fashionable item of mass consumption in the first half of the 20th century and its subsequent vilification as an instrument of death and disease in the second is one of the most remarkable about-turns of the past 100 years. However, despite the voluminous literature about smoking, there has been little written on the history of its manufacture. Howard Cox's lucid account of the history of British American Tobacco provides a valuable corporate history and some insight into the way in which the cigarette assumed global significance.

In detailing the growth of BAT from its small-town American roots in the 1880s to its position of global dominance by the second world war, Cox takes his reader back and forth across five continents and utilises a cast list of Dostoevskian proportions.

He successfully meshes analysis of local and regional developments within the framework of the corporation, exploring the role of individuals and their networks of influence. He shows how a small tobacco company, W. Duke, Sons & Co, consolidated its position in the United States market through an aggressive policy of acquisition and merger, creating a vertically and horizontally integrated network of suppliers and distributors for its brands across the US. It then applied the same principle to expand into overseas markets. Duke was willing to take a risk on a new product, to utilise technical expertise to mass produce that product and to use modern advertising and marketing to sell it. The story Cox tells is the quintessential story of the corporate American dream.

However, it is a dream that transcends national boundaries. In analysing domestic and overseas development, Cox shows a sophisticated understanding of how political and economic circumstances across the world shaped events on the ground and the corporate vision. He explores resistance to that vision: nationalism and protective legislation, war, geographic obstacles and clashing corporate cultures. The international growth of the American Tobacco Company, as Duke's concern had become known, was as much a process of accommodation as acquisition, shaped by and shaping existing local tobacco markets.

Nonetheless, the story is framed in terms of war and conquest. Duke's pivotal foray into the British market in 1901, the ensuing "tobacco war" and the subsequent formation of BAT is a case in point. Much of the rest of the story of BAT is entwined with British colonial ambition and international relations. Cox keeps his reader abreast of relevant political developments while providing a coherent picture of the evolving management network.

In such a detailed synthesis of supply and distribution across varied regional contexts, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is little room to address questions of demand. Cox's analysis sees the market as a passive sponge and does not address the changing conventions surrounding tobacco use nor the impact of various groups opposing smoking.

The strength of Cox's book lies in its exposition of the growth of a ground-breaking, scientifically managed, multinational company and in his integration of the personal and the political at the corporate, national and international levels. Cox's account takes the story to the end of the second world war, when the war on the cigarette was just beginning.

Rosemary Elliot is a PhD candidate at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Glasgow.

The Global Cigarette: Origins and Evolution of British American Tobacco 1880-1945.

Author - Howard Cox
ISBN - 0 19 829221 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 423

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