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Book Review: The Cigarette Book: The History and Culture of Smoking by Chris Harrald and Fletcher Watkins

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“The truth is, cigarettes are pleasurable.”

With these words the reader is launched into a strange netherworld that revolves around cigarettes. It is a place devoid of rules, morals, or polite behavior. One in which the culture dictates that anything goes, and everything is up for grabs. The Cigarette Book: The History And Culture Of Smoking collects hundreds of items that reflect this worldview, all are part and parcel of the smoking lifestyle.

As the title indicates, the book is focused almost exclusively on manufactured cigarettes, as opposed to other tobacco products. The cigarette as we know it today is a uniquely twentieth century phenomenon. In 1900, tobacco was mainly consumed in pipes, cigars, or cigarettes of the roll-your-own variety. By 1910, sales of factory-rolled cigs had exploded, reaching 8.6 billion for the year. The Cigarette Century had begun in earnest.

The huge sales broke the nascent industry wide open. Suddenly everyone
had important business dealings with the tobacco companies. These included reps from advertising, corporate sponsors, labor and industry, pro-smoking groups, anti-smoking groups, health studies… the list is endless, because it has never stopped growing, and never will.

The Cigarette Book compiles this unwieldy group of interested parties in a format much like that of a small encyclopedia. The first entry is “aardvark” (which refers to a surreal Winston ad) and the final is “Zippo” (about the iconic lighter). Each item is explained with a few brief, descriptive paragraphs, some of which include illustrations.

One thing that makes this such an enjoyable read are the peculiar things the authors discovered. Take the entry titled “Global Warming.” In 2006, former tobacco farmer Al Gore stood in front of a group from the UN and told them that cigarettes were a “significant contributor” to global warming. Apparently he even managed to keep a straight face when he said it.

Ever wonder what the biggest boondoggle the cigarette companies ever faced might be? It was a brand called Premier, the world’s first smokeless smoke. The public hated it, and Premier lasted about as long as New Coke did. When the brand was rolled out in 1988, the overall cost was estimated to be over $300 million.

The “Slang” section features obscure terms used for cigarettes over the years. These include “Durries” (from Australia), “Gaspers,” (for cheap brands), “Tabs” (Specific to Northern U.S.), and the ever popular “Coffin Nails,” which has been traced back to a magazine article published in 1867.

There are some celebrities who will always be associated with smoking.  A number of them are profiled, including Frank Sinatra, Yul Brynner, Bette Davis, John Wayne, and Laurence Olivier. Beginning in 1956, Sir Laurence even had his very own “Olivier” brand of cigarettes. Legend has it that he blackmailed theatres to stock only Olivier brand smokes in their vending machines if they ever wished for him to grace their stage.

Quite a few U.S. Presidents were smokers, but none were as devoted to the habit as Lyndon Johnson. At his peak, LBJ smoked three packs a day. Another heavy smoker in the world of politics was “Uncle Joe” Stalin. While he puffed like a chimney in meetings, nobody else was allowed to smoke at all.

On the opposing team, Adolph Hitler quit his pack a day habit and became the original anti-smoking zealot. Much like the evil-doers of today, Hitler taxed and banned cigarettes everywhere he could. According to the book, when der Fuehrer killed himself, the first thing his staff members did was break out the smokes.

The Cigarette Book is full of interesting, funny, and sometimes downright bizarre bits of trivia about smoking. Whether you are a three pack a day LBJ type, or an anti-smoking fanatic like Hitler, you are bound to find something to enjoy here. My copy now resides in the holiest place of all for books. In the bathroom, right next to the toilet.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • gene

    The truth is, heroin is pleasurable.

    The truth is, crack cocaine is pleasurable.