The Truth Behind the Tobacco
By Philip J. Hilts
Addison-Wesley -- 288pp -- $22
ASHES TO ASHES
America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the
Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph
of Philip Morris -- By Richard Kluger
Knopf -- 807pp -- $35
There may come a day when people look back on the history of the tobacco industry and marvel that such a thing ever existed. This is a business, after all, that slowly kills its best customers. It argues that smoking is an exercise of free choice--but knows that habitual smokers are addicts. The point has now arrived where the industry is arguing in state lawsuits that smoking imposes no net health-care cost because smokers' premature deaths save states money in the long run. Like plague victims, smokers get separated from the normal population--glassed inside airport smoking lounges or banished outdoors to suck their death sticks.
If the tobacco industry ever does draw its last, hacking breath, people will look back on the mid- to late-1990s as the beginning of the end. Consider recent developments: In 1994, tobacco chief executives testify before Congress that cigarettes are not addictive and deny that they manipulate nicotine levels. But a treasure trove of documents from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. comes to light, contradicting both assertions. Whistleblowers, led most significantly by former B&W research chief Jeffrey S. Wigand, produce damning assertions backed up by convincing records. Antitobacco lawsuits make unprecedented progress. Indeed, Liggett Group recently settled a class action seeking recovery for addicted smokers--the industry's first court setback.
This historic epoch is given appropriate notice in two new books. Author Richard Kluger tracks the sweeping history of this peculiar industry in Ashes to Ashes. New York Times health and science reporter Philip J. Hilts takes a less ambitious course: In Smokescreen: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Cover-up, Hilts chronicles the tobacco industry's most recent perfidies, primarily through documents that were unearthed as a result of lawsuits and regulatory action against the cigarette companies.
The tobacco story is red-hot right now. Hilts, on leave from the Times to write his book, is rushing Smokescreen into print--to hit bookstores at the same time as Kluger's tome. His publisher even takes an ungentlemanly swipe at Kluger's work in publicity materials for Smokescreen. Meanwhile, the methodical Kluger--known for his painstakingly careful work in Simple Justice, a history of the 1954 Supreme Court school-desegregation ruling, and in The Paper, his history of the New York Herald Tribune--had to staple inserts into review copies of his book in an attempt to include the latest twists in this fast-moving story.
The Kluger-vs.-Hilts face-off is a clear case of an astute 800-page doorstop vs. a breezy heart-stopper. The Hilts tome is accessible and exciting if less than authoritative. Hilts portrays the tobacco industry as a conspiracy perpetuated through at least 50 years' worth of half-truths, lies, incredibly slick marketing, and big dollops of political cash. And the book unwinds almost like a Greek tragedy, starting with a top-secret (what else?) 1953 powwow of chief executives, at which they formulate a unified public-relations strategy after independent researchers first prove that cigarettes cause cancer.
In Hilts's view, the industry's fatal flaw is its knee-jerk denial response to any and every negative assertion about cigarettes and smoking. A link to cancer or heart disease? Deny it. Cigarettes addictive? Deny. Targeting underage smokers? Managing nicotine levels to guarantee addiction? Developing tobacco strains with super-high nicotine levels? Inventing a "safe" cigarette that would make all others, by definition, seem unsafe? Deny. Deny. Deny. Deny.
It worked for a long while. But Hilts shows, in dramatic detail, why the denial defense is unraveling today. In some of the book's most gripping passages, he recounts how the first batch of B&W documents got dropped in his lap, following an unsolicited phone call from a government source that he had never spoken to. He also lays out the tale of Merrell Williams--who worked as a closely watched paralegal cataloging incriminating documents and who, horrified, reached the conclusion that the tobacco companies were covering up murder. Hilts brings life to Wigand's struggles for control of information at Brown & Williamson, particularly the researcher's charge that company lawyer J. Kendrick Wells altered or even destroyed research records to prevent their eventual use in lawsuits against the company.
Hilts offers no great revelations. The Times has already published his best scoops. But he does great service by cross-referencing the documentary evidence against the continued denials of tobacco executives, under oath and before Congress. And he gives the lie to industry claims that it does not target young smokers, employing persuasive documentary evidence and laying out the argument that they must do so in order to stay in business. If the tobacco companies can't hook smokers before they turn 21, studies show, they've probably lost them for good.
Still, for all his righteous indignation, Hilts is not a prohibitionist. "Cigarettes must be legal; but how do we limit carnage from this subtle, satisfying, clever form of death?" he asks. Hilts calls for more effective regulation and notes, chillingly, that one of the most effective solutions--forcing open the research files of the tobacco companies--is increasingly out of reach. When courts today freely place corporate filings under seal of secrecy, and even government agencies protect tobacco secrets, they sustain the lies that allow future generations of smokers to be hoodwinked.
Kluger's tome is the polar opposite of Hilts's book in tone, breadth, and depth. If it is indeed a doorstop, it is one that holds the door open so we may view the vast expanse of this industry's history and better understand how Big Tobacco came to its present state. While Hilts sometimes borders on hysteria, Kluger takes a tone of studied objectivity that only gradually turns into mild reprobation in later chapters, as the full weight of the industry's duplicity comes to light.
The strength of Kluger's work is his detailed accounting of every phase in the tobacco industry's development. Most readers, perhaps, can do without the minutiae on everything from industry co-founder Buck Duke's Fifth Avenue mansion and his rural New Jersey retreat to Philip Morris' wrongheaded purchase of the Seven-Up soft-drink company. But Kluger's thorough research and well-organized writing make this book the definitive--and very fair--history of the most controversial industry of our time. The very scope of his tale implicitly makes the case that, as in previous crises, the industry could well survive this current contretemps unscathed.
Kluger is especially adept at pointing out the dilemma facing cigarette producers as scientific evidence increasingly and irrefutably demonstrated that their products were killing people. "The simple truth was that the cigarette makers were getting richer and richer as the scientific findings against them piled higher and higher," Kluger writes. "Before anyone fully grasped the situation, the choice seemed to have narrowed to abject confession and surrender to the health advocates or steadfast denial and rationalization."
Just as Hilts argues, in the end, that the tobacco industry should not be legislated out of existence, Kluger also sees a future for Big Tobacco. He provides a framework for letting the industry survive while limiting the risk it imposes on society: new federal taxes, strict regulation, and limitations on advertising. As a denouement, this is not entirely satisfying. Following such detailed accounting of death and deceit, it's odd to see both authors wishing Big Tobacco a long if less happy life.