Cigarette Century

 Today I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Allan Brandt – a History of Medicine professor at Harvard – lecture on some of the background and stories behind his popular new book, The Cigarette Century:  The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America.  It’s always fascinating to see those old (and some newer) ads from the cigarette industry – “Doctors prefer Camels 3 to 1”; “Blow Some My Way” (a non-cigarette holding woman to her smoking sweetheart); “Three out of four smoker’s coughs go away when patients switched to Phillip Morris” – but some of Dr. Brandt’s less photogenic conclusions were equally startling.  They also have implications for our members of Congress who voted against the S-CHIP program using as a major reason that health care for 4 million new kids is funded by an increase of 61 cents in the federal cigarette tax.

First – deaths related to tobacco are double – yes double – the combined deaths due to diabetes (often a direct result of obesity), homicide, suicide, HIV, car accidents and various other problems.

Second – the tobacco industry makes 4-5 times more profit abroad than it does in the United States.

Dr. Brandt’s first point is interesting because a favorite tactic of politicians arguing against a cigarette tax is to point to all those other bad things we do – like eat at McDonalds – and ask why we aren’t taxing that behavior.  Well, because cigarettes are far more harmful than all those other bad habits. 

The second point above is a great one.  I’m really sick of the argument that somehow industry is being hurt by increased taxes.  Sure, domestic consumption of cigarettes is dropping and this tax will hasten that good trend.  However, the tobacco companies have already moved on to the developing world where they expect to make a majority of their profits for the foreseeable future.  Dr. Brandt’s photos of cigarette ads that often dominate the skyline in developing countries and the 20-year projections of the huge profits the tobacco industry expects to make there as profits diminish in wealthier countries were eye opening.  And that’s the plan regardless of what we do here.   NC is just the epicenter of big tobacco’s last gasp in the US before they move overseas.  Too bad some politicians are still living in the past.


  1. Eric

    October 22, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    it’s intuitive that progressive politics (protecting the the environment, the working wage) in the US translates into increasingly aggressive neo-imperialist exports (total lack of environmental protection in most of the developing world, exploitative wages…). This is the dynamic of globalization. Might the same happen with consumer goods? successful US campaigns against tobacco just force to companies to exert more pressure elsewhere in the world in order to remain profitable?

  2. Adam Searing

    October 23, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    Well, maybe, but I think the goal should be to reduce smoking rates (and the increase in health costs) in the developing world too – not give up the fight to do the same here.

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