Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris
The Cigarette Papers
Smokescreen: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Cover-up
It is tempting to conclude from recent events that the tobacco industry’s longtime invincibility has come to an end. The Food and Drug Administration, after nearly a century of inaction, is moving to regulate nicotine as a drug. The Justice Department is investigating whether industry executives committed perjury when they denied that tobacco is addictive. Many states have filed suits to recover medical expenditures related to smoking, and the Clinton administration is attempting to restrict sales to minors by such measures as blocking access to vending machines.
Most striking of all, perhaps, has been the press’s vigorous coverage of the industry. For decades, tobacco was a taboo subject among journalists. Aside from The Reader’s Digest, an early and persistent critic of the industry, few magazines or newspapers were willing to touch it. Time and newsweek, rich in four-color ads touting Marlboro and Winston, avoided articles on the health hazards of smoking. The women’s magazines, while meticulously documenting every detail in the fight against breast cancer, would not print stories on the equally lethal threat from smoking; too much advertising revenue was at stake. And ever since the mid-1970s, when Philip Morris went to court to suppress a biting British-made documentary called “Death in the West: The Marlboro Story,” TV news producers had covered the tobacco story with great caution, if at all.
Now it’s hard to turn on the TV or open a magazine without finding a critical piece about the tobacco industry. “How Smokers Get Hooked,” read a recent headline in Time, one it would never have run in earlier years. Publications as diverse as Mother Jones and the Journal of the American Medical Association have recently devoted entire issues to the subject. And the network news magazines have engaged in their own tobacco war to get the inside story on the companies.
Yet for all the recent activity the current offensive against the industry could prove short-lived. For it rests on a very shaky foundation. Many of the recent stories about the industry can be traced to a single source: Jeffrey Wigand, the former head of research at the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. (the makers of such brands as Kool, Pall Mall, and Lucky Strike). The first high-level executive to defect from the industry, Wigand has been able to provide journalists with rare firsthand knowledge of its inner workings. He was the subject of the much-publicized 60 Minutes segment on the industry’s awareness of the addictive properties of nicotine. Yet even Wigand’s abundant knowledge is quickly being exhausted. Moreover, as Marie Brenner shows in her recent profile of him in Vanity Fair, Wigand is a volatile person who has been subject to intense pressure from the industry, and it’s unclear how much longer he will be of value to reporters.
The press has further benefited from the efforts of a renegade paralegal named Merrell Williams. In 1988, Williams, an unemployed Ph.D., was hired by a Louisville law firm working …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.