No book before this one has rendered the story of cigarettes mankind's most common self-destructive instrument and its most profitable consumer product with such sweep and enlivening detail.
Here for the first time, in a story full of the complexities and contradictions of human nature, all the strands of the historical process financial, social, psychological, medical, political, and legal are woven together in a riveting narrative. The key characters are the top corporate executives, public health investigators, and antismoking activists who have clashed ever more stridently as Americans debate whether smoking should be closely regulated as a major health menace.
We see tobacco spread rapidly from its aboriginal sources in the New World 500 years ago, as it becomes increasingly viewed by some as sinful and some as alluring, and by government as a windfall source of tax revenue. With the arrival of the cigarette in the late-nineteenth century, smoking changes from a luxury and occasional pastime to an everyday to some, indispensable habit, aided markedly by the exuberance of the tobacco huskers.
This free-enterprise success saga grows shadowed, from the middle of this century, as science begins to understand the cigarette's toxicity. Ironically the more detailed and persuasive the findings by medical investigators, the more cigarette makers prosper by seeming to modify their product with filters and reduced dosages of tar and nicotine.
We see the tobacco manufacturers come under intensifying assault as a rogue industry for knowingly and callously plying their hazardous wares while insisting that the health charges against them (a) remain unproven, and (b) are universally understood, so smokers indulge at their own risk.
Among the eye-opening disclosures here: outrageous pseudo-scientific claims made for cigarettes throughout the '30s and '40s, and the story of how the tobacco industry and the National Cancer Institute spent millions to develop a "safer" cigarette that was never brought to market.
Dealing with an emotional subject that has generated more heat than light, this book is a dispassionate tour de force that examines the nature of the companies' culpability, the complicity of society as a whole, and the shaky moral ground claimed by smokers who are now demanding recompense
Warnings, bulletins and cautionary tales about the dangers of cigarette smoking have combined scare tactics and semi-friendly advice for years. But in Ashes to Ashes -- Richard Kluger's incisive, funny and altogether magisterial new book about America's love affair with nicotine -- we've finally got a book that chronicles the chilling rise of Big Tobacco, and puts our deadliest little habit into perspective as a phenomenon that colors virtually every facet of American business, culture and identity.
Ashes to Ashes weighs in at a whopping 832 pages, but Kluger -- previously the author of The Paper, an equally detailed study of the celebrated New York Herald Tribune -- doesn't waste a word. We follow tobacco's history in America from its cultivation by English settlers in Virginia (unlike many products, it thrived in the porous clay soil and the quasi-tropical climate of the American South) to its status as a cash crop that rescued the southern states from the economic ravages of the Civil War. Just as notably, Kluger has a firm grasp on the myriad roles that cigarettes have played in our culture: as boredom killer; talisman for Bogie and Bette in the movies; the soldier's best friend.
With a novelist's vivid characterizations and firm tone, Kluger's book examines the emergence f the major players of the cigarette industry. Yet the bulk of Ashes to Ashes is an exacting look at the rise of Philip Morris. The company has dramatically expanded its market share, most notably in 1954 when Marlboro (originally created as a woman's brand) was re-introduced. Thanks largely to Marlboro's success, Philip Morris went on to dominate the industry. Later, in the 1980s, it acquired companies whose products -- from beer to frozen vegetables -- would insulate it from the growing negative attention paid to the company's core business.
To Kluger's credit, his journalism is shot through with humanity and more than a little compassion for smokers themselves. He uses sobering statistics and information (much of it never before published) rather than noisy emotion to reveal both the dangers of smoking and the wildly duplicitous positions the big tobacco makers have taken over the years. There's no good advice, the old saw goes, like a good scare. If Ashes to Ashes doesn't get you to quit, maybe nothing will. -- Salon