The Runaway Jury by John Grisham (Doubleday, 401 pp., $26.95)
Smokescreen: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Cover-up by Philip J. Hilts (Addison Wesley, 253 pp., $22)
Ashes to Ashes: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris by Richard Kluger (Knopf, 807 pp., $35)
On August 12, in the second week of the worst month in the history of the American tobacco industry, a six-man jury in Jacksonville, Florida found that the cigarettes made by the country's third largest tobacco company were "unreasonably dangerous and defective" and awarded a 65-year-old ex-smoker with lung cancer $750,000 in damages. Only once before had the tobacco industry lost a lawsuit--the Cippolone case in 1988--but that was a weak decision, easily overturned on appeal. This was the real thing, and on Wall Street tobacco stocks fell by almost 15 percent.
Twelve days later, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it intended, for the first time, to regulate the nicotine in cigarettes as a drug. Vending machines, under the proposal, would be all but banned. Tobacco billboard advertisements would be reduced to black-and-white "tombstone" ads. Tobacco advertising in magazines appealing to youth Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker. would be outlawed, as would brand-name sponsorship of sporting events. And less than a week later, a third and final blow was struck. Speaking before a nationally televised audience at the Democratic National Convention, Al Gore gave a dramatic account of his sister's death from lung cancer twelve years ago, after a lifetime of smoking. "Three thousand young people in America will start smoking tomorrow. One thousand of them will die a death not unlike my sister's," Gore said, bringing the full weight of the White House against the tobacco industry. "And that is why until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking."
The tobacco industry has been under fire for some time, of course. Over the past thirty years, the steady accumulation of medical evidence on the dangers of smoking and the mounting political victories of the anti-smoking movement have undercut the economic, political and cultural status that cigarettes and the cigarette industry enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s. But there is a difference between an orderly retreat, in which the industry can limit its losses and retrench, and what happened to the industry in August, which looks rather like the beginning of a rout.
It is a fact of no small significance, moreover, that as juries, politicians and regulators were descending on the tobacco industry this summer, the topselling novel in the land was The Runaway Jury by John Grisham. In his previous novels, Grisham had made villains of mafiosi, Klansmen, drug dealers and large-scale political conspirators. In his new book, however, he chose for his malefactors four middle-aged tobacco executives; and such is the shift in public opinion that this group of suits who, not long ago, could no more have carried a thriller than a band of grocery clerks can now serve as a perfectly plausible source of suspense, as riveting embodiments of evil.
At the beginning of the novel, when the executives gather in a small Gulf Coast town to talk strategy about an upcoming liability trial, Grisham introduces them without elaboration, in the confidence that even the most mundane details about tobacco executives have today become creepy and portentous. "Another assistant ventured forth with a platter of leftover shrimp and oysters, but Fitch waved him off," Grisham writes, of one of the tobacco honchos. "There was a rumor that he sometimes ate, but he'd never been caught in the process. The evidence was there, the thick chest and ample waistline, the fleshy roll under the goatee, the general squattiness of his frame. But he wore dark suits and kept his jackets buttoned, and did a fine job of carrying his bulk with importance." Time was when only Ernst Stavro Blofeld or KGB agents or foreign dictators waved away plates of oysters and hid their fleshy bulk in dark suits. But this is 1996, and the business of tobacco has tipped from dubious to despicable. As one juror said after the verdict in the Jacksonville case, "It's hard for me to understand why this hasn't happened before." Of course it is. How could these monsters ever have seemed like mere businessmen?
There is much to cheer about in this new assault on the tobacco industry. But the problem with routs is that, in the mad, exultant pursuit of an enemy, rash decisions are made and important distinctions are blurred. The day after the vice president's tearful speech at the convention, for example, it was revealed that, for a number of years after his sister died of lung cancer, he was still accepting money from tobacco interests and that he and his family were still growing tobacco on their farms in Tennessee. Gore's explanation was that his sister's death created a "numbness" that made it difficult for him to translate the lessons of her death into public policy. But even if we grant that explanation--and it resembles nothing so much as a political version of the Twinkie Defense--it does not change the fact that Gore somehow found it permissible to denounce an entire industry without once mentioning his own part in it.
This is the kind of intemperance and righteousness that lies beneath the surface of the tobacco rout, an intemperance found again and again in the rhetoric of the anti-smoking movement and, most particularly, in Smokescreen, a new book by Philip Hilts. Hilts is a medical writer for The New York Times, and Smokescreen is a history of the tobacco industry's attempt to hide its knowledge of the dangers of smoking from the public. In the book's final chapter, Hilts sets out to provide an explanation for the conduct of tobacco executives, and he does so by referring to The Nazi Doctors, Robert Jay Lifton's study of the psychology of those who ran the concentration camps.
When [industry executives] come to the final question, "How can we be doing this?" there is an answer: Well, people are going to smoke, and there is no reason why they shouldn't choose it if they want to. What's better? Giving people their small risky pleasures, or prohibition and a civil war over morals? The guards and doctors in the Nazi death camps had similar rituals in which they would talk to one another, and ask how could they be doing what they were doing. They had an answer as well. Whenever a new doctor would arrive at Auschwitz, Lifton writes, "the process was repeated as the newcomer's questions were answered by his more experienced drinking companions. He would ask, `How can these things be done here?' Then there was something like a general answer ... which clarified everything. `What is better for [the prisoner]--whether he croaks in shit or goes to heaven in a cloud of gas?' And that settled the whole matter for the initiates."
What is grotesque about this passage is not just the casualness with which Hilts enlists the Holocaust in his campaign against the Marlboro Man; Auschwitz, after all, has been cheapened before. It is also the incredible moral and analytical simplification, the obliteration of notions of responsibility, that is required to compare the act of selling people cigarettes to the act of herding people into a gas chamber. At the moment of its greatest victory, the anti-tobacco movement has begun to acquire a noxious odor of its own.
Hilts makes two principal arguments about the tobacco industry. The first of them is that the cigarette manufacturers have known about the dangers of smoking for years and have consistently lied to cover up that knowledge. The basis for this claim is, in part, several thousands of pages of internal industry documents that were stolen from the tobacco giant Brown and Williamson by a paralegal in the late 1980s and then leaked, first to anti-tobacco activists and then to Hilts at the Times. It is a fascinating story and Hilts tells it with relish, beginning with his visit to the whistleblower himself, a divorced 53-year-old former professor of drama named Merrell Williams, now in hiding somewhere on the Gulf Coast. (Which, remember, is how another Grisham novel ends.)
"After the beginning of an interview over beer," Hilts writes,
(H)e and I repaired to his hideout, a small modern apartment in a little maze of modern apartments that seemed a little out of place in the trees and among the semi-rural town strung out along the old highway, which had been long since bypassed by the interstate.
The refrigerator had little food, but plenty of beer and wine. Boxes were not yet unpacked, the room was dark, and there were no lamps set up yet. Mr. Williams and I sat in the dark, with a weak light coming in from the kitchen. He had been there for six weeks; his two daughters, he fretted, were still in Louisville, vulnerable to impulses of his former wife and to anything his imagination could conjure up about angry tobacco company employees who wanted revenge on him. "No, I don't really think they're in danger," he said. "No, not really."
Jobless and down on his luck, Williams took a job in 1987 with a law firm handling part of the legal defense in tobacco liability cases for Brown and Williamson, the country's third largest cigarette manufacturer. His task was to read through mountains of memos and internal reports and "scrub," separating out those that would hurt the company in court from those that would help them, and from the beginning what he read began to horrify him. "I went to the filing cabinet," he tells Hilts, "opened it up, and said to myself, well, it looks as if these people are engaged in, ahhhh, murder."
Confused, Williams retreated to the mountains of Kentucky to sort things out.
As he stood in the mountains, he said, he was frustrated with life in general. "Just tell me what the hell I need to do," he said, speaking to the air or God. "I was stricken by an attack of Ghandism. I was freezing cold, my dumb girlfriend was still smoking, and I am not going to say that God said, `steal documents,' but after that, I did.... I became captivated by the idea--have you read Jean Genet? [He had] kind of a spiritual thief inside him. It's an absurdity, I know. I just had to do it."
Back at work, Williams was transformed. He would slip documents into a back brace that he wore under his shirt, photocopy them and then smuggle them back. He would walk by someone else's desk, glance at incriminating documents and come back later to copy them. He would come in at 5:30 in the morning on Saturday, when the guards weren't there, and pick out whatever struck him as most outrageous: studies that showed tobacco executives had known for years about the threat of lung cancer and heart disease, marketing plans aimed at addicting young smokers. Eventually he amassed a treasure trove of some of the most incriminating material ever to have emerged about the tobacco industry. "The ones I picked were always the kind of things that there was just no way of denying it," Williams told Hilts. "They had denied to a magistrate in California that they had done any biological studies on the hazards of smoking. They said they had just never done them, had nothing to do with it. But all of a sudden I had the biological studies."
If The Runaway Jury is an example of Grisham imitating life, then the tale of Merrell Williams is an example of life imitating Grisham. One day, Hilts writes, Williams was "sitting on a boat, stilled by a storm in the Gulf and tied up, going nowhere for many hours." He picked up The Firm, which is, after all, about a man in the South who steals incriminating documents from a law firm and then runs for his life, and as he read it, he told Hilts, he whispered to himself in horror: "Oh My God!"
Williams's documents have played two very important roles in the fight against tobacco. The first is that they have made it much easier for plaintiffs' attorneys successfully to sue cigarette manufacturers. In the Jacksonville lawsuit lost by Brown and Williamson in August, the jury was at first split, stymied by the central argument of the tobacco attorneys, which was that the defendant, Grady Carter, was responsible for his own smoking. Then they went back into the documents contained in Williams's treasure trove and introduced as evidence in the trial. Some were read aloud by the jury foreman, some pages with key passages dog-eared for future reference. "Nicotine is addictive," begins one notable memo, written in 1963 by B&W's top counsel. "We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug effective in the release of stress mechanisms." After almost ten hours of deliberations, the deadlock turned into a 5 to 1 advantage for the plaintiff. "Some of those lines--I don't think I'll ever forget them," one of the jurors told The Wall Street Journal. "Not only did they make blatant statements admitting to the dangers, but they didn't make their findings public."
Williams's purloined documents have also played a key part in one of the central debates in the tobacco controversy, namely the question of informed choice. All tobacco lawsuits involve smokers who took up their habit before 1966, which was the year in which the Surgeon General first mandated health warnings on cigarette packages and advertisements. Smokers after that point are considered to have been duly warned. As such, they can no longer sue cigarette makers for damages. In the years before the warnings were in place, however, plaintiffs' lawyers argue that an informed choice about smoking was not possible. How could it have been, if the information needed to make a proper decision was being suppressed by the industry?
Hilts makes a second critical point in his brief against the tobacco industry, and it is that nicotine addiction is a phenomenon virtually unique to adolescents. "Among those over the age of 21 who take up smoking for the first time," he writes:
(M)ore than 90 percent soon drop it completely. It takes more than a year, and sometimes up to three years, to establish a nicotine addiction; adults simply don't stick with it.... Put in market terms, the most important datum of the tobacco trade is that, among those who will be their customers for life, 89 percent have already become their customers by age 19. In fact three-quarters had already joined the ranks of users by age 17.
Drawing on internal industry studies and market research, Hilts paints a detailed picture of how this happens. In a memo written in 1972, for instance, Claude Teague, assistant chief of R&D at R.J. Reynolds, wrote that people begin to smoke "for purely psychological reasons--to emulate a valued image, to conform, to experiment, to defy, to be daring, to have something to do with his hands, and the like." The chief gratification sought by young smokers is social, to be part of the group and respected. "Smoking appeals to the very young," Hilts writes, "not because of its nicotine, but chiefly for a number of social reasons--they need this product as a badge of daring and independence, and this is at least partly because it is dangerous and discouraged by authorities. Adults do not start smoking because that social motivation is not present; adults have already formed up their image of themselves, and found the necessary badges of independence and contrariness elsewhere."
Here is the great paradox of smoking: the warnings that serve to discourage the decision to smoke among adults have the opposite effect among teenagers. A classic example of this pattern has been demonstrated by John Pierce of the University of California at San Diego, who looked at the impact of the sudden increase in ads targeting women in 1967, as typified by the Virginia Slims "You've come a long way, baby" campaign. Among girls over 18, the campaign had little effect. In fact, from 1960 onward the number of girls over 18 starting smoking steadily fell, as medical evidence of the hazards of smoking began to be well known. Among girls under 17, however, the trend is exactly opposite. Through the '60s, the number of girls in this age bracket beginning smoking steadily rose, and with the advent of tobacco campaigns aimed at women those numbers soared.
The explanation for this is not simply that advertising is more effective among the young. It is that reaching one adolescent with a carefully crafted message has a kind of multiplier effect. The message of advertising, Hilts writes, is "filtered through the perceptions and tastes of slightly older, model smokers. So those who take up the habit are carriers: they infect their younger peers." According to one researcher, a boy is eight times more likely to smoke if his best friend does, and a girl is six times as likely if her best friend does.
What Hilts argues--and it has become a central argument of the anti-tobacco movement--is that the industry has cynically and deliberately manipulated this vulnerability of adolescents. The idea that smoking is an adult decision is a sham: it is instead a decision made in the weakness of adolescence and then perpetuated throughout adulthood by the power of nicotine's grip. In every tobacco liability case, plaintiffs' attorneys have taken care to select smokers who fit this classic profile of addiction. It is no coincidence that both Grady Carter and Rose Cippolone--the only two plaintiffs to have won even one round with the industry--started smoking in their teens and were so hopelessly addicted that they defied the advice of doctors and the pleading of family and friends, and quit only after they were diagnosed with lung cancer. They won because they were seen as helpless, as overmatched by their addiction.
These arguments, the argument from choice and the argument from addiction, are everywhere in the great tobacco wars of the day; but it isn't at all difficult to see that they have a number of problems. To begin with, the idea that the suppression of information about the evils of tobacco made it impossible for smokers to make an informed decision is one of those slippery half-truths dreamed up by liability lawyers. Reader's Digest, one of the largest-circulation magazines in the world, had begun an aggressive campaign against tobacco by the early 1950s, running articles with titles such as "Cancer by the Carton." By 1952, 40 percent of the American public believed smoking caused lung cancer. In 1953, two researchers at the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York published a famous and highly publicized paper showing that painting smoke condensate from cigarettes onto the skin of mice led to tumors in 44 percent of the animals. Nor was the addictiveness of cigarettes any great secret. As Richard Kluger writes in Ashes to Ashes, his magisterial history of the tobacco industry: "That nicotine was the ingredient in tobacco that induced a habitual craving for, dependency upon, or addiction to smoking cigarettes--call it what you will--had been common scientific knowledge for much of the twentieth century."
By and large, then, the secret research undertaken by the cigarette manufacturers on the dangers of smoking and the addictiveness of nicotine, the research that has so captured the imagination of the anti-smoking movement, merely followed and elaborated on conclusions already undertaken and confirmed by mainstream medical science. The fact that the tobacco companies hid this research did not mean that the public at large was prevented from learning about the evils of cigarettes. It just meant that the public did not learn about the evils of cigarettes from the cigarette manufacturers.
Now, I suppose that somewhere there may be people more inclined to trust tobacco companies over independent scientists on the question of the safety of cigarettes. But it should be noted that not even Grady Carter and Rose Cippolone, the plaintiffs selected because they perfectly illustrated every conceivable anti-tobacco argument, were just this naive. During the Jacksonville trial, Carter testified that he was given the Reader's Digest articles (among others) by family and friends. His son sent him pictures of diseased lungs. He chose a doctor who smoked to avoid getting a lecture about his habit. He once figured out that he had a one in three chance of getting lung cancer and predicted that he would be one of the lucky two. Like everyone else in America, in other words, Carter knew all along that smoking was dangerous. So why should it possibly matter--outside of some narrow consideration of liability law--that the company that made his cigarettes didn't join in the chorus?
During the Cippolone lawsuit, attorneys for the plaintiff questioned Kinsley V. Dey, the president of the Liggett cigarette manufacturer, about his company's attempts in 1955 to duplicate the Sloan Kettering mouse research. Hilts presents the exchange with all the indignation that he can muster. But it is the phoniest kind of indignation, the kind that pretends a lie is vicious when it is merely pathetic. Call me cynical, but when I read this I found it hard not to laugh:
Lawyer: What was the purpose of this? [repeating the mouse research] Dey: To try to reduce tumors on the backs of mice. Lawyer: It had nothing to do with health and welfare of human beings? Is that correct? Dey: That's correct. Lawyer: How much did the study cost? Dey: A lot.... Probably between $15 million and more. Lawyer: And this was to save rats, right? Or mice? You spent all this money to save mice the problem of developing tumors, is that correct?
The bigger problem confronting the tobacco abolitionists is that they are logically divided against themselves. The argument from choice contradicts the argument from addiction. The former assumes that smoking involves an adult decision, in which correct information about the risks of smoking is critical, because truth can appeal to reason and reason can act on truth. The latter assumes that smoking is an adolescent decision, in which correct information about risk is less important than a host of unrelated social, emotional and psychological factors, and behavior has little or nothing to do with truth or reason. The liability lawyers spend all their time arguing for informed choice. The Food and Drug Administration, on the contrary, proposes a scheme that would deny choice, banning all kinds of advertising and restricting access to cigarettes. So which is it?
For the anti-smoking movement, I think, the answer has to be that smoking is an addiction. The reason is simple: if you take the argument from choice to its logical conclusion, it is very hard to justify any government intervention against cigarettes at all. Consider, for example, the argument that smoking is bad because smokers cost society a lot of money. Right now, seven states are suing the tobacco industry on precisely these grounds to recoup the allegedly higher Medicaid costs incurred by smokers. The premise of this suit, however, isn't true. Smokers may run up higher medical costs during their lifetimes, but they die eight years earlier, on average, than non-smokers, which means that that amount is more than offset by the lower Social Security and Medicare costs normally associated with old age, and the huge amount in extra taxes that smokers pay on their cigarettes. The actual amount of this "smoker's subsidy" varies from study to study, but the best estimates are roughly that, for every pack of cigarettes consumed by a smoker, society saves between 20 and 30 cents.
Fine. What about "passive smoking," or the harm that smokers do to non-smokers through secondhand smoke? This argument isn't much better. In a recent article in the journal Regulation, Kip Viscusi points out that of the eleven studies of lung cancer risks associated with secondhand smoke, only one showed statistically significant effect above the 10 percent confidence level, and "in some cases the influences were in the wrong direction (that is, that people exposed to smokers showed a lower than expected risk of lung cancer)." In the case of heart disease, Viscusi points out, the Environmental Protection Agency has based its analysis on only a single study, which is full of caveats such as the following: "While the lung cancer risk among never-smokers exposed to [environmental tobacco smoke] is well established, a possible risk of heart disease due to ETS is more controversial.... There are many risk factors for heart disease, and it is difficult to control well for all of them....A number of assumptions are involved in estimating the disease mortality due to ETS, adding an unfortunate level of uncertainty." Viscusi concludes that the actual health risk from secondhand smoke is probably very small, roughly equivalent to the risks associated from drinking chlorinated water.
The case against smoking, then, rests entirely on preventing the harm that smokers do to themselves. But this is a much trickier proposition than either of the other two arguments about external costs. Smoking is a dangerous habit, but it is not a habit without some compensatory advantages. It is not, in other words, suicide. In fact, it is more like a weakness for rich food or riding a motorcycle. In Ashes to Ashes, Kluger discusses what is known as the Nesbitt paradox, named for the researcher who conducted a famous set of experiments on smokers in the early 1970s. Paul Nesbitt took three groups of subject: non-smokers, low-tar brand smokers, and high-tar smokers. He told the smokers to inhale every thirty seconds, while he administered a series of twenty-eight steadily increasing electrical shocks every fifteen seconds. Nesbitt's theory was that if smoking had a tranquilizing effect, then the high-tar smokers should be able to absorb more shocks than the low-tar smokers, who in turn should be able to take more punishment than the non-smokers. That is exactly what he found.
This was the paradox: one stimulant apparently had the effect of neutralizing another stimulant. Nesbitt concluded that the effect of smoking is to raise what you might call the arousal baseline. Smoking, he explained, keeps the body so excited, so revved up, that other shocks to the system make less of an impact. To put it another way: the sight of a car traveling ninety miles per hour is relatively ordinary, if you are already driving at seventy miles an hour yourself, but if you are crawling along the highway at twenty-five miles per hour, it is terrifying. "Smoking can then be perceived as a tranquilizer not despite its short term effects but because of them," Kluger concludes. "The known level of excitation, that is, seemed to soften the blow or, at the other end of the emotional spectrum, to serve as ballast for the joyride and keep the passenger from spinning out of control."
This is a therapeutic effect. It sounds, in fact, rather like the arguments made on behalf of Prozac. This is no coincidence, since tobacco industry officials have long realized that their true competitors are the drug companies. Listen to Claude Teague, the assistant research chief at R.J. Reynolds, again in a 1972 memo.
In a sense the tobacco industry may be thought of as being a specialized, highly ritualized and stylized segment of the pharmaceutical industry.... in different situations and at different dose levels, nicotine appears to act as a stimulant, depressant, tranquilizer, psychic energizer, appetite reducer ... to name but a few of the varied and often contradictory effects attributed to it. Many of these same effects may be achieved with other physiologically active materials such as caffeine, alcohol, tranquilizers, sedatives, euphorics and the like. Therefore, in addition to competing with products of the tobacco industry, our products may, in a sense, compete with a variety of other products with certain types of drug action.
Of course, tobacco is not really Prozac. It is Prozac with a fairly serious set of side effects. Richard Rogers, an epidemiologist at the University of Colorado, estimates that the life expectancy of a woman between the ages of 55 and 59 who has never smoked is thirty-two years, while the life expectancy for a current smoker in the same age range is twenty-six years. Still, if someone wants to trade six years of their own life for a crutch against the pressures of modern existence, it is tough to argue they should not have that right. "It is part of human nature to make bad choices," Jacob Weisberg argues, persuasively, in his recent book In Defense of Government. "We need to accept them. That is not to say that freedom is incompatible with a modicum of paternalism; cigarettes should be kept away from minors. The government ought to propagandize relentlessly against smoking, as it does. But citizens of a free country have a right to do things that are dumb, even dangerous to themselves, so long as they don't harm others."
The point is that choice is a slippery thing, and that free will is a more complicated and less purely utilitarian faculty than the anti-smoking movement might have supposed. It is possible to argue, in fact, that all the anti-smoking arguments that turn on the question of informed choice--all of the huffing and puffing over the Merrell Williams treasure trove, the endless lawsuits focusing on what the tobacco industry knew and when--inevitably rebound to the favor of the tobacco industry. After all, the implication that smokers could have made an informed decision in 1960 or 1955, if only the industry had been honest, is that today, when all the information about smoking's danger is admitted and known to the public, an informed decision is possible. And this turns the smoking argument into an argument over rights; it allows adolescents to indulge in the fantasy that they are making a rational choice about smoking, when in fact they are doing anything but.
The truth, though, is more complicated and less rational. What smokers do know or don't know about the risks of smoking may have very little to do with their decision to start smoking. Information is not the key to an anti-smoking argument and an informed choice is not the goal. The only way to curb the habit is to do what the FDA is now proposing to do, to treat smoking as a pediatric addiction--to treat it not as a choice but as a disease.
It would have been nice if Hilts (and many other enemies of tobacco) had acknowledged this problem. But then he would have had to concede that Merrell Williams and his cartons of purloined documents are really just a red herring. And where then would his book (and the speeches of politicians) have found its melodrama, its Grishamness? "He was 53 years old, wore a work shirt and jeans, and looked troubled and unsure of himself in the bar," Hilts writes of Williams, in my favorite passage.
He had committed what he knew were acts that might be illegal, and he wasn't sure exactly why he had done it, either. He wanted assurance from the reporter first that he was actually a reporter and not an agent of the tobacco companies. At first, when the reporter appeared with a white shirt, dark suit and tie from his Northern business, Merrell said he would not admit having any documents. "You could be anybody," he said. "Do you have identification?" The reporter showed his blue-and-white New York Times building pass. "I had not read The Firm," he said. "First, I lived it. Then I read it."
The conclusion that smoking is addictive returns us to the question of the intemperance of the tobacco rout. The argument from choice leads only to the conclusion that tobacco executives are liars, which is not a terribly original or exceptional thing to say about a corporate executive. If smoking is an addiction, however, those who profit from it, who lure the young into chemical dependency, are really little more than drug dealers, right? So why shouldn't Hilts compare tobacco executives to Nazis? Why shouldn't Gore denounce them from his bully pulpit?
Here, though, Hilts and the antismoking advocates make the second of their mistakes. The analogy between drug dealers and cigarette executives does not work. Drug dealers, in the popular imagination, are predators. One of the critical aspects of the drug dealing mythology is that the dealer does not use the drugs he sells. He knows that they are dangerous, but he lures others into using them anyway. (The plot of the movie Scarface turned on its hero's violation of the drug dealer's cardinal rule: "don't get high on your own supply.") Tobacco executives, by contrast, fall into a very different category of substance peddler. They overwhelmingly use the drugs that they sell.
When I say that they "use" cigarettes, I don't mean that everyone who works, or has worked, for the tobacco industry smokes. Among the upper levels of industry management, however, smoking is very close to universal. This is a striking and repercussive fact. In 1994, Roger Rosenblatt interviewed a half dozen of the top executives of Philip Morris for an article in The New York Times Magazine, and every one of them claimed to be a smoker. It is clearly a requirement of this corporate culture. One of the best moments in Richard Kluger's extraordinary history of Philip Morris and the anti-smoking movement is his description of what happened when, in 1991, the company top spot was taken, for the first time, by a non-smoker. Michael Miles had come to Philip Morris from the food businesses the company had bought in the 1980s. Here is an obviously uncomfortable Miles at his first press conference:
Why was it, reporters pressed him, that he himself did not smoke? His answer presaged lingering suspicions over his claimed serenity in playing the role of the capitalist world's chief peddler of cigarettes, a product accused of annually killing multitudes: "I used to smoke, and for some reason that I can't even remember I lost my taste for it.... I used to eat a lot of scallops and don't anymore. It's just one of those things."
A few weeks later, Miles had to face the issue again. At the stockholders' meeting ... Miles was reminded of the difficult position he had won for himself when a Philip Morris shareholder stood up to lament the fate of the company's chief rival, RJR, after it had been taken over by what he called "the biscuit makers," meaning executives from Nabisco. He told the PM management arrayed on stage that it was tobacco that had made the company what it was, now adding, "I would hate to see Philip Morris turned over to the salad-and-mayonnaise makers." Former mayo-maker Miles rose and in his best abbreviated style answered, "Comment taken--please don't be concerned."
The shareholders' worry was that people who don't know the tobacco industry won't be loyal to it. But it is not hard to see the subtext of the remark--that part of knowing the industry and being loyal to tobacco is to use tobacco yourself. What makes it morally possible to participate in the dubious tobacco experiment, in fact, is that those who run the experiment are themselves also its subjects. The non-smoker at a tobacco firm is an outsider, and by 1994 Miles was out the door. "I thought it was better to return the company to lifetime executives with tobacco juice in their veins," he said, in his resignation letter. His replacement was Geoffrey Bible, who, as Kluger tells us, was an "unapologetic pack-a-day smoker." The smokers were back in charge.
The overwhelming presence of smokers in the tobacco industry changes, in a fundamental way, the moral context of their attempts to addict young smokers. Tobacco industry executives are not merely victimizers of the addicted. They are themselves victims of addiction. They are not predators looking for prey, they are cult members looking for converts. Both Hilts and Rosenblatt spend a lot of time trying to explain how it is, as Rosenblatt puts it, that "good, smart, decent men manage to contribute to a wicked enterprise." Rosenblatt answers this, as does Hilts, with the standard pop psychology line about the assumption of group identity:
The best answer, which isn't particularly satisfying, is that people in groups behave differently, and usually worse, than they do singly. In speaking with these Philip Morris executives, I felt the presence of the company within the person. In the end, I felt that I was speaking with more company than person, or perhaps to a person who could no longer distinguish between the two. In this situation, in which the company has effectively absorbed its employees in its moral universe ...
But this analysis is needlessly complicated. Philip Morris is a company run by smokers that acts precisely as you would expect a company run by smokers to act. Tobacco companies try to make smoking seem as glamorous as possible. That's also what smokers do. Tobacco companies try to build a socially acceptable environment for smoking. That's also what smokers do. And how do tobacco executives wake up in the morning and look themselves in the mirror, knowing that they are going to go out and addict people? Because they are themselves addicted. Like any member of a deviant subculture, their primary focus is to legitimize their own behavior.
In his account of why adolescents begin to smoke, Hilts talks briefly about the critical role of peer pressure: adolescents take cues about the acceptability of smoking from older and respected peers, and a boy is eight times more likely to smoke if his best friend smokes. But he never follows through on this observation, which is a shame, since it suggests that adolescents smoke not only because companies run by smokers tell them that it is fine to smoke, but also because the smokers that they hang out with tell them it is fine to smoke. It suggests, in other words, that there is little practical difference between these two groups, no bright line that distinguishes the culpability of the merchants from the culpability of their customers.
Smoking is caused by all smokers, whether they work for Philip Morris or not. Hilts writes that he was himself "enamored of the [smoking] habit for ten years." He does not follow through on the significance of this admission, and by the end of the book it starts to weigh heavily on the reader. Never mind the tobacco industry. In those ten years, how many smokers did Hilts addict?
Richard Kluger has written a very different book than Philip Hilts. Kluger is a historian, not a polemicist, and his innovation is to tell the story of Philip Morris's ascendance in tandem with the story of the anti-smoking movement, cutting back and forth like a gifted movie director. The juxtaposition is jarring. The Philip Morris sections are all about brilliant marketing strategies and wily executives. Kluger's dense text is full of fascinating digressions about how the industry mastered the art of modern marketing in the '40s, '50s and '60s. The story of Philip Morris's long struggle against R.J. Reynolds--the latter was, for a long time, a much bigger company--will leave you cheering wildly for the underdog. And then, just as you marvel at some new Philip Morris coup, Kluger will switch back to the pioneering research of some young scientists in the 1950s nailing down the dangers of smoking, or talk about the political battles that delayed the beginning of the war on smoking, or the sleazy tactics by which the tobacco barons sought to placate public alarm.
This is Kluger's way of addressing the problem that so engages Hilts, the problem of reconciling tobacco's status as a legitimate business with its position as one of the world's deadliest products. Instead of forcing some kind of explanation, however, Kluger simply presents the two stories, side by side. The result is that Ashes to Ashes, all 800 or so pages of it, is not as neat and coherent a narrative as, say, the story of Merrell Williams. Yet it is a far more successful book, for it is this very demand for narrative, for heroes and villains, that dooms Hilts's enterprise and hobbles the discussion of the subject in American politics. Kluger's story is disjointed because the story of tobacco is disjointed. History, unlike polemic, always seems a little untidy.
Kluger ends his book with a suggestion for resolving the tobacco wars. Congress, he argues, should indemnify the cigarette manufacturers against all present and future liability suits. In exchange, the industry should agree to complete oversight by the FDA, including a commitment steadily to lower nicotine levels until they are below the point of addiction. "Would it not, then, make sense," he asks, "for the tobacco industry, rather than fighting to the bitter end, to abandon its lush but precarious existence beside the ever-rumbling volcano and make peace with the American public...?" Without such a compromise, Kluger argues, there is no other way to "relieve the severest effects of a deadly product that, practically speaking, cannot be outlawed."
There is much wisdom in this approach, particularly in the recognition that the only way to make real progress against smoking is to abandon the search for a culprit. Of course, one would have thought that this was obvious from America's other great failed social encounter with addiction: the debate over illegal drugs. In that debate, liberals, the same liberals who are so single-mindedly focused on the evils of tobacco, insist that the context in which heroin and cocaine are used is more important than the choice to use the drugs themselves; and conservatives, the same conservatives who are so proudly indifferent to the perils of nicotine, swear up and down that drug use is about choosing drugs and little else. These are not ironies, they are contradictions; and with such contradictions, it is no wonder that this country has an incoherent drug policy. What both sides need to remember is that there is a phenomenon in human life in which free will has only a secondary place--in which, in fact, appeals to free will serve only to complicate and to confuse--and that is disease. Since addiction is a disease, as the FDA has properly defined it, all this tangled and arbitrary name-calling and blame-casting is beside the point. Diseases are not criminal enterprises. They demand treatment, not protection.
Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of, most recently, Outliers.