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Montage | Open Book

Thinking Outside the Pack

July-August 2012

Getting them while they’re young: tiny cigarette packs, meant for children to incorporate into their play with dolls or toy soldiers

Getting them while they’re young: tiny cigarette packs, meant for children to incorporate into their play with dolls or toy soldiers

Courtesy of Robert N. Proctor/personal collection

Cigarettes, observes Robert N. Proctor, Ph.D. ’84, “remain the world’s single largest preventable cause of death,” and following roughly 100 million tobacco-related deaths in the twentieth century, far more mortality “lies in the future”—an estimated billion deaths in the twenty-first. The author, now professor of the history of science at Stanford, has written a large, and hotly passionate, book on the subject, Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition (University of California, $49.95). From the prologue:

This is a book about the history of cigarette design, cigarette rhetoric, and cigarette science. My goal is to treat the cigarette as part of the ordinary history of technology—and a deeply political (and fraudulent) artifact.…It is also, though, a story of how smoking became not just sexy and “adult” (meaning “for kids”) but also routine and banal. The banalization of smoking is one of the oddest aspects of modern history. How did we come into this world, where millions perish from smoking and most of those in power turn a blind eye? How did tobacco manage to capture the love of governments and the high rhetorical ground of liberty, leaving the lesser virtues of longevity to its critics? And what can we do to strengthen movements now afoot to prevent tobacco death?

Think again about the numbers: in the United States alone, 400,000 babies are born every year to mothers who smoke during pregnancy. Smoking is estimated to cause more than 20,000 spontaneous abortions—and perhaps as many as seven times that. Seven hundred Americans are killed every year by cigarette fires, and 150 million Chinese alive today will die from cigarette smoking. Tens of thousands of acres of tropical forest are destroyed every year to grow the leaves required to forge the nicotine bond.

…[I]f we believe that smoking really is a kind of “freedom,” this is partly because the cigaretteers have spent billions to make us think this way. The propaganda machine is powerful and operates on so many levels—science, law, government, sports, entertainment—that it is hard to think outside the pack. Governments are entranced, hooked by the bounty of taxes brought in by selling cigarettes. (No single commodity brings in higher revenues.) The mainstream media are often inattentive, partly because the tobacco story is spun as “old news.” So we are brainwashed, nicotinized, confused into equating fumery with freedom.

Healthy people tend to forget how crucial health is for other kinds of freedom. The tobacco industry wants us to think about smoking as an inalienable right of all free people, but how free is the amputee suffering from Buerger’s disease, the cigarette-induced circulatory disorder expressed as gangrene of the feet? How free was my beloved grandmother, the once-lively South Texas flapper, rendered wheezing and immobile on her deathbed from the emphysema scarring her lungs? Health so deprived is surely a kind of violation, a slow robbery of the spirit to which the strong and healthy will never bear first-person witness. The industry sells this slow asphyxiation—and the unwary buy into it.

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