Ashes To Ashes

Michael Ross reviews "Ashes To Ashes: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War the Public Health and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris" by Richard Kluger.

By Michael Ross

Published April 23, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

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 of 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.

Michael Ross

Michael Ross is a regular contributor to Salon.

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