The Rise and Fall of the Great American Cigarette

Image: Shane Lin, Harvard University Press

Cigarettes were widely considered gross and disreputable at the beginning of the 20th century; by the end, they were on their way out of widespread public acceptability once more. In between, they were ubiquitous. The politics of that arc are the subject of a fascinating new work of history.

Sarah Milov’s The Cigarette: A Political History refocuses from the much-discussed deceptive actions of the tobacco companies to the politics around their end product. Milov draws out the role of the federal government in essentially fostering the business, for instance through New Deal programs that supported tobacco farmers that lasted long many of the other recovery programs of the time.

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She also explores the activist movement—often spearheaded by women—that articulated a concept of nonsmokers entitled to a smoke-free environment and, in so doing, managed to take on a rich and powerful industry that was lying to the country about whether its products were dangerous. But the book also explores some of the tensions in the fight against smoking, and the more uncomfortable reasons why it succeeded, like the fact that part of what it took to drive smoking out of public places was language focused on productivity and efficiency in the workplace, appealing to management’s desire to control its employees. You probably don’t want to be stuck at a desk next to someone chain-smoking Virginia Slims—but I bet we’d all love a few more contractually enshrined and universally observed ten-minute breaks.

I spoke to Milov about her framing of the book and why the political history of cigarettes, as well as the movement that took on the tobacco industry and the unintended consequences for workers.


JEZEBEL: Why a political history? There’s been a lot of writing about the history of the tobacco industry and how completely fucked up it has been, generally. What makes this a political history, and what parts of the story did you choose to illuminate and why?  

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SARAH MILOV: I think if people hear about the history of tobacco, or the history of the cigarette, they associate that history very strongly and only with the history of corporate deception conducted by the cigarette manufacturers beginning in the 1950s—the half-century-long conspiracy to collude in order to avoid regulation by insisting that the science behind cigarette smoking health was not settled when, in fact, it was. That’s the story. And it’s invoked repeatedly now as the tobacco playbook, doubt-mongering science and the extensive use of scientists for hire as a method of leading an industry that’s now emulated, of course, by big oil, the pharmaceutical industry, etc. The tobacco playbook means a particular kind of history.

I approached this book from a slightly different angle. And in fact, it’s an angle that should make us feel both worse about the history of tobacco, but also maybe more hopeful. Worse in the sense that, if you look over the course of the 20th century, tobacco was not unregulated. It wasn’t that the federal government just couldn’t get its act together to act until the 1990s to try to regulate on behalf of consumers. It’s that beginning in the ’20s, but really getting going in the 1930s, the mechanisms of the government were intended to benefit producers. And in this case, tobacco producers.

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The first half of my book tracks the laws and policies that allowed tobacco farmers to achieve a degree of prosperity that they had never achieved before, which later gave rise to the tobacco farmers being an alliance with the cigarette manufacturers, being the more folksy avatar for an industry that had no credibility. But in giving tobacco farmers power—for example, the power to tax themselves in order to fund their own lobbying and promotion organization that went around the world after the Second World War—the federal and tobacco state governments really contributed to the cigarette epidemic outside of the US. After the Second World War, tobacco farmers are organized, and they have money to go to foreign tobacco monopolies and say, we can help you engineer an American style cigarette, buy our tobacco. That’s very much related to government policies, because the whole motive for going abroad is to make sure that the tobacco program that exists in the United States doesn’t have an oversupply.

It wasn’t that the cigarette manufacturers pulled a fast one on America. It’s that the federal government was vitally interested in shoring up the livelihood of a politically privileged constituency, farmers. Honestly, white farmers.

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But I also think the story is less depressing than just the federal government was a co-conspirator in making tobacco. As sinister as the tobacco industry was—they literally met in smoke-filled rooms and engaged in a formal conspiracy. But for all of that, Americans smoking rates declined precipitously despite the millions of dollars they poured into this, despite their lobbying muscle. And what I argue in the book is that a key reason that smoking has fallen is because activists, beginning in the late ’60s but really getting going in the 1970s, essentially invented a new constituency: the idea of a non-smoker. These activists, really even before there was scientific evidence that secondhand smoke is harmful, were arguing for smoking restrictions just on the basis of rights and their rights to inhabit a space unmolested by cigarette smoke. From that story, we get something a little bit more optimistic. We get a story of a social movement that was creative in the types of claims that it made, and it found vindication for the nonsmoker, not through the federal government, but through local governments, to some degree state governments, and through private businesses.

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You talk about how initially, cigarettes come along and people think they’re gross at best and deviant at worst. How does the American public get over the hump? What role does the government play in that?

For me, learning about the history of cigarettes, I was surprised to learn that before the 1930s, first off, tobacco consumption was very rare, but when people did consume tobacco, it wasn’t in a cigarette. It was as chewing tobacco, or in a pipe, or if you’re a corporate bigwig, maybe you nursed a cigar. But for the first couple of decades of the 20th century, tobacco is seen as a foreign vice. It’s something associated with immigrants, with people who are not native-born, who are not white, who are not Anglo-Saxon. There’s a temperance movement around cigarette smoking that’s very similar in its contours to alcohol temperance, that cigarette smoking in kind of eugenic terms dissipates the national vitality. Or, worse, it unsexes men and makes women masculine.

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What happens, essentially, is war. The First World War is pivotal because it domesticates the cigarette. It transforms it from being a foreign vice into an emblem of patriotism. You have generals who were opposed to cigarette consumption before the war, who during World War I basically encourage smoking as a less unhealthy alternative to the other things young men could get up to in the trenches. It’s better than consorting with prostitutes or perhaps drinking to excess. It’s considered a safe form of recreation for young men, for soldiers.

And you can see this marked change in mainstream, proper thought toward the cigarette in an organization like the Red Cross or the YMCA, both of which prior to World War One had been discouraging of cigarette consumption. During the war, they end up being purveyors of cigarettes, helping to organize drives for cigarettes for the troops and then distributing them in Europe at the warfront. So war plays a really important role, and of course, it’s a large audience that then becomes hooked to cigarettes. And then, of course, during the 1920s, all industry, but the tobacco industry is foremost among them, pours tons of money into advertising in a new way, in part because it’s a decade of Republican dominance and there are massive corporate tax cuts and with that money, they spend on advertising. So the advertising industry grows up in the 1920s right alongside cigarettes.

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I wanted to talk about the activist movement that defeats the cigarette. You’ve got a movement with a lot of women leaders who organize to fight cigarette smoke on the idea they’re entitled to this public space. And at the same time, sometimes their arguments are playing into the hands of managers at large corporations regulating what employees can do with their time. Consequently, there’s this pushback from labor unions. There’s a lot of interesting tensions there that I wanted to talk to you about. What is it about the case that nonsmoking activists are able to make that ultimately manages to overrule this extremely, as you said, politically well-connected and organized industry?

In their own terms, activists thought to make smoking socially unacceptable. That was their avowed goal. They weren’t really trying to get smokers to stop smoking. They were trying to get smoking to stop occurring in public.

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Overall, they were inspired or drew techniques from three different social movements that were important during the ’60s and ’70s. The first, of course, is the civil rights movement, which endowed these mostly white, very middle class, very educated nonsmokers rights activists with a moral heft to their claim. So, for example, the head of the Berkeley chapter of one of these groups says something along the lines of, I wouldn’t draw a direct comparison between the civil rights and the non-smokers’ rights movement, but is there really a big difference between telling somebody you can’t eat at a lunch counter and telling somebody you can’t enjoy your lunch at a lunch counter because everybody around is smoking? Nonsmokers’ rights activists reasoned by analogy from the civil rights movement to inject kind of a moral nobility to their cause, but also to shock people into thinking that maybe they were oppressed, too. Maybe there was some romance, even, around a group of middle-class people believing themselves to be oppressed and believing that they could lead a liberation movement. They also called their movement a liberation movement, at times.

The second stream of thought that I think is at play, not always consciously, forgive the play on words here, is the feminist consciousness-raising movement. Part of what these nonsmoker activists had to do was to make people realize that they shared oppression. Some early attempts to start nonsmokers’ rights groups began among women in their houses, explaining to each other that they were going to remove ashtrays from a non-smoking household. They were going to risk being seen as a bad hostess and disappoint their guests, and they were going to shore up support in order to take this step. They’re kind of coming out to each other as people who didn’t want to have to abide by what a smoker wanted in public. I think the same kind of logic was operating, that by going public with shared oppression, we can make that oppression the basis for a political movement and claiming rights.

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The third stream of thought—remember, it’s the early 1970s when the first chapter of GASP, Group Against Smoking Pollution, which then becomes the main organizational arm of this movement—is the environmental movement. Indoor smoking is frequently framed in their literature as the indoor side of attempts to regulate clean air. Sometimes they’ll even appeal to federal standards for environmental contaminants and say, well, if the federal government says carbon monoxide is poisonous over these levels and that’s released from the burning end of a cigarette, why don’t we have regulation around indoor smoking?

Image: AP
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What’s interesting is that, frequently, what gets traction is this idea of there being a business case against smoking. Could you talk a little bit about the idea of “the business case” and what happens there?

So, while there is this chapter-based movement of anti-smoking activists playing out across the country, there’s also a workplace-based movement to try to get workplaces to implement some regulations on what workers can do. It’s important to just pause and say the background for this is that smoking had been part of workplace culture for a few decades. In part, it rose on the strength of the postwar labor movement. It was something that unions, in fact, bargained for in the postwar era.

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Now, in the 1970s, this woman named Donna Shimp brings a case against her employer, New Jersey Bell, and she is arguing essentially that work conditions at her office, which is in lower New Jersey, were so smoky (more colleagues smoked than was true of the general population—it was a very smoky office) that workplace conditions basically were unsafe for her, and so the Bell was in violation of its obligation to provide employees with a safe and healthy work environment. During the course of her conflict with Bell, before it becomes a lawsuit, she types up a letter to try to get them to see it her way. She is basically mustering any argument she can. First, she says, well, if you can have a smoke-free area for the switchboard because they’re precious equipment, then surely can have you can implement a smoke-free area for employees. Then she writes that smoking employees are less productive than non-smoking employees. She makes this appeal to management.

The case itself ultimately is decided in Donna Shimp’s favor, and what’s determinative for the judge was not the business case that she made, but the suggestion that if switchboards are so important, then so are human bodies. But after she wins her case, she basically becomes this one-woman consultancy and she develops a model for how to convince businesses to implement smoking rules. She knows, first, if you don’t implement smoking rules, maybe you’ll get sued just like I sued my employer, and who would know better how to help you to not get sued than the person who won their suit against their workplace? Basically she is saying, I have created a legal liability that I will help you overcome. It’s a kind of funny argument.

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When she went to her union about this, initially, her shop steward basically told her to buzz off, right?

Not just buzz off, but in a little meeting that we’re having in the room to discuss this, I’m going to smoke in your face. The non-verbal equivalent of eff you. She was wearing a gas mask to work. She had to take anti-emetic pills. She was doing this thing that was making her sick.

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The union story here is really interesting, because part of what’s happening is, you know, unions from the 19th century have, I think it’s fair to say, historically been very antagonistic toward unilateral decisions from judges that say the judge is deciding what can and can’t proceed in industrial relations. The most iconic examples of this are from the early 20th century, where judges would just enjoin the union from doing a strike. Judges have traditionally been hostile to union activity and so, more particularly to bring it up to Donna Shimp’s time, it’s not that judges per se have, but the courts were seen by unions as meddling in the bargaining affairs of the union. So in Donna Shimp’s time, unions are by now beginning to experience some decline—it’s an era of deindustrialization, it’s an era of the feminization of the workforce, so the membership of unions is in flux and frankly so are the cultural prerogatives, the cultural taken-for-granteds that had been true of nearly all-male union culture. What happens in Donna Shimp’s case is what she wants is to subvert the bargaining agreement in the resolution of her case. She’s saying it doesn’t matter what the bargaining agreement is. What matters is my health. Her union had bargained for smoke breaks. Her union had bargained for smoking in the cafeteria. Those things would go away.

So the idea of an individual worker’s right to health was seen by the union at the time as a threat to the collective bargaining agreement. And so structurally, Donna Shimp was not well poised to find agreement with her union. Now, it didn’t have to be that way. Especially after her first case was won, unions could have considered employee health and safety as a virtue to protect. Right? Most people did not smoke. It’s kind of a fallacy when we think about the past like everybody is smoking. Even at this time, smoking rates were in the upper 30 percent, which means the upper 60 percent of people don’t smoke. But at the time, unions were feeling very jealous of the prerogative of collective bargaining. And there’s something sinister also happening, which is the tobacco industry is explicitly after this case reaching out to unions and saying, well, don’t you know, nonsmokers are threatening the collective bargaining agreement. They basically work within the AFL-CIO governing structure to make sure the tobacco workers union is, let’s say, overrepresented in their views.

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Image: AP

The way it plays out is really interesting because it’s like, you know, I don’t want to work in a smoky room, but it’s interesting to think that what happens is smoke breaks go away and this entire category of break disappears. It’s interesting the unintended consequences that happen from it.

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Health concerns acting as an opening wedge for employee management becomes a dynamic of this. It’s very easy to understand why unions would have opposed some of the dynamics of the nonsmokers’ rights movement. Over the ’80s, the majority of businesses responding to these major surveys say they have recently implemented smoking restrictions, and many of them do so in order to, in their estimation, boost productivity. Nonsmoking is presented as a signal of employee virtuousness, that you’re going to do more for the employer, you’re going to be cheaper. You’re not going to cost that much to insure. It is maybe foreboding, or a premonition of some other ways in which in more current times employers might seek to control the behaviors that their employees partake in. I’m thinking of drug testing of employees not related to worker performance, but just monitoring what employees are doing. Or corporate wellness ideas of tracking how much people are walking or how much people weigh. The nonsmokers’ rights movement sees that its best bet is to align with management, and in so doing, people who continue to smoke are framed as not just unhealthy, but as lazy and deviant.

It’s such a clear public health success story, how much smoking has declined, because we know it gives you cancer. But it’s interesting to see that to get it into the public consciousness the fact that literally this shit will kill you, part of it was, well, Johnny takes a ten-minute smoke break three times a day, and that’s a problem...

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Right, it took wielding efficiency, productivity and essentially capitalism as a cudgel against workers in order for this to be successful. I mean, I think part of the dark side of the story is that I would not want to live in 1960s America in terms of breathing and air. That also reflected elitism and hierarchies of a different sort. But the nonsmokers’ rights movement succeeded because it was a movement of the white middle-class people arguing that people who smoked were bad workers and were essentially bad citizens that cost taxpayers too much money. Now, that’s not exactly an uplifting story for public health. And you can see the consequences of that in terms of public health if you look at who continues to smoke today. It’s people who are poorer and less educated. Smoking is stratified and it wasn’t always that way. It became that way over the course of the ’70s and ’80s.

I feel like that’s like the story of the 20th century. Things that have systematic causes, as much as possible of the responsibility for them is devolved and deregulated onto the individual, right?

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It’s become individualized. The cigarette can be seen just in terms of the contours of the U.S. government—there are overlapping eras, but from the ’30s to the 2000s, it was supported by the government and in the more deregulatory era, the tobacco program outlasted other farm programs, which is interesting. But in a deregulatory era, smoking, the fact that so much government went into smoking was totally erased as smoking became seen as an individual failing and a private vice. It was framed that way in order that activists could achieve successes in terms of regulating public smoking.

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