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Cigarette: A Political History

by Sarah Milov Harvard University Press
Pub Date:
Hbk 400 pages
AU$79.00 NZ$83.48
Product Status: In Stock Now
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The untold political story of the most controversial consumer product in American history.


Tobacco is the quintessential American product. From Jamestown to the Marlboro Man, the plant occupied the heart of the nation’s economy and expressed its enduring myths. But today smoking rates have declined and smokers are exiled from many public spaces. The story of tobacco’s fortunes may seem straightforward: science triumphed over our addictive habits and the cynical machinations of tobacco executives. Yet the reality is more complicated. Both the cigarette’s popularity and its eventual decline reflect a parallel course of shifting political priorities. The tobacco industry flourished with the help of the state, but it was the concerted efforts of citizen nonsmokers who organized to fight for their right to clean air that led to its undoing.


After the Great Depression, public officials and organized tobacco farmers worked together to ensure that the government’s regulatory muscle was more often deployed to promote tobacco than to protect the public from its harms. Even as evidence of the cigarette’s connection to cancer grew, medical experts could not convince officials to change their stance. What turned the tide, Sarah Milov argues, was a new kind of politics: a movement for nonsmokers’ rights. Activists and public-interest lawyers took to the courts, the streets, city councils, and boardrooms to argue for smoke-free workplaces and allied with scientists to lobby elected officials.


The Cigarette restores politics to its rightful place in the tale of tobacco’s rise and fall, illustrating America’s continuing battles over corporate influence, individual responsibility, collective choice, and the scope of governmental power.


1. Tobacco in Industrializing America

2. Tobacco’s New Deal

3. Cultivating the Grower

4. The Challenge of the Public Interest

5. Inventing the Nonsmoker

6. From Rights to Cost

7. Shredding a Net to Build a Web

Conclusion: “Weeds Are Hard to Kill”: The Future of Tobacco Politics




"A nuanced and ultimately devastating indictment of government complicity with the worst excesses of American capitalism. The Cigarette looks beyond individual consumers and their choices and aims its penetrating gaze straight at the larger phenomena shaping all of our lives: the exigencies of war, the rise of organized interest groups, the fall of government regulators, and the immense, unseen influence of big business." - Scott W. Stern, The New Republic


"Whether you had thoughts on Stranger Things’ smoking scenes or just got back from your Juul break, read Milov’s book about the history of the cigarette… If the movie Yesterday questioned a world without cigarettes (and The Beatles), this book will make you realize just how different a world that would have been." - Elena Nicolaou, Refinery29


"Milov provides a thoughtful and penetrating analysis of both the tobacco industry and its relationship to government." - Library Journal (starred review)


"Mixes big-picture academic theory with fascinating, specific details to illuminate the rise and fall of tobacco production… A fine history." - Kirkus Reviews


"Sarah Milov’s The Cigarette offers critical new insights into the relationship of American politics to the tobacco industry as it grew by leaps and bounds through the twentieth century. Deeply researched and lucidly argued, this book is essential reading as new electronic cigarettes test historical approaches for regulating the massive harms of smoking." - Allan Brandt, author of The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America


"The America of ‘no smoking in public places’ didn’t just happen. With deep, careful research, Milov reveals its long, fascinating history as a high-stakes game with contesting actors. And her story is even bigger than cigarettes; the battle over smoking takes us to all the hot spots of the nation’s twentieth-century political economy. The Cigarette is an impressive achievement." - Lizabeth Cohen, author of A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America


"The Cigarette is a subtle, well-researched story whose findings speak in fresh and often surprising ways to central tensions of twentieth-century politics. With a fine sense of irony, Milov reveals how leading advocates of ‘free enterprise’ depended on tax-funded price supports and quotas that benefited big white growers. A marvelous contribution to American business and political history." - Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America


"By bringing together the histories of not only tobacco companies, but also farmers, state officials, smokers, and nonsmokers, Milov provides a new way to understand American political economy and its history. A brilliant and original book." - Jonathan Levy, author of Freaks of Fortune


"The Cigarette is a compelling and eye-opening book. But it is not what you might expect. Historian Sarah Milov doesn’t retrace the familiar story of Big Tobacco and its back room dealing and deceit. Sure, that stuff is here, but this book is bigger and bolder. Based on exhaustive research, it shows how the cigarette - both as a product and an idea - was central to the building and tearing down of American political institutions and legal thinking in the twentieth century. This book recounts how domestic and foreign policy representatives encouraged people to smoke at home and abroad, how tobacco farmers gave shape to fundamental New Deal notions of statecraft, how nonsmokers emerged as a powerful voice and remade ideas of citizenship and public space, and really, how you can’t understand the American past without understanding the role of the cigarette in it. As Milov guides readers through this exciting and often unexpected history, she introduces them to an amazing cast of characters - from denim-clad North Carolina farmers and the bow-tie wearing C. Everett Koop to Donna Shimp, the crusading New Jersey office worker who zeroed in on the cost factors of smoking and brought the very first lawsuit by an employee against an employer’s smoking policies. This is a history of politics and big ideas and changes that still has people in it. Pulling all of this together into one book is a testament to Milov’s storytelling skills and powerful historical imagination." - Bryant Simon, author of Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks
Sarah Milov is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Virginia. A former fellow of the Virginia Foundation of Humanities and the Woodrow Wilson Society of Fellows at Princeton University, she has written on the tobacco industry, the rise of e-cigarettes, and the grassroots fight to battle climate change. Her research explores how organized interest groups and everyday Americans influence government policy.