“If you liked this interview, you’ll love this book”: A Review of Sarah Milov’s The Cigarette: A Political History (2019)Historians in the News
tags: books, historians, cigarette, Sarha Milov
Jaipreet Virdi is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Delaware.
On March 2019, writers Danuta Kean and Isobel de Vasconcellos released The Emilia Report, comparing how 10 male and female writers received broadsheet coverage in the same book market necessary for literary recognition. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, their survey uncovered that new books by men receive 56% of review coverage. Despite being bestselling authors, two female subjects received no coverage of their books in newspapers. This market bias against female writers certainly is nothing new. Indeed, England’s first published female poet — Emilia Bassano, whom the report is named after — struggled to sustain a living as a writer, received limited recognition, and was completely overshadowed by male poets.
I bring up market bias and power balance to highlight the circumstances prior to the release of Sarah Milov’s book, The Cigarette: A Political History, when historians N.D.B. Connolly and Edward Ayers appeared on NPR’s “Here and Now.” The show’s researchers heavily relied on Milov’s book as well as Nan Enstad’s Cigarettes, Inc.: An Intimate History of Corporate Imperialism for the segment. Though Connolly tweeted shout-outs to both women, neither one of them were mentioned in the segment – nor, for that matter, even invited to participate in a conversation that heavily built on their work. For Milov, a tenure-track professor at the University of Virginia, the omission meant her book was not marketed to NPR’s five million listeners. Everyone involved apologized and explained that it was not malicious intent, but omissions like this are an indication of a broader problem that disproportionately tends to affect women.
Then when Milov tweeted “If you liked this interview, you’ll love the book,” I jumped at the chance to read The Cigarette (even though I didn’t hear the interview). Everything I knew about cigarettes can be grouped into two categories:
- the manufacture of doubt by Big Tobacco and the clever advertising strategies à la Mad Men and
- how to bum a cigarette off of someone.
The Cigarette is a revisionist history of tobacco that, at its core, is an indication of the power of civic activism. As Milov outlines, even though the dangers of smoking were reported as early as the 1930s, it took forty years for cigarettes to begin to lose their position as an American institution. This transformation was spearheaded by citizens who understood and demanded entitlement to public space. Inspired by the civil rights and environmental movements, grassroot activists succeeded in pushing nonsmokers’ rights, leading to legislation restricting smoking in public places. There was plenty of pushback from the tobacco industry and deregulation lawyers, but by the 1990s, the EPA’s classification of secondhand smoke as a human carcinogen solidified the goals of citizen activists. On a broader cultural scale, this invigorated the importance of local democracies. Paradoxically, non-smoking activists did not perceive their success as a moral one — i.e. smoking is bad — but rather from an economic perspective that constructed “a vision of citizenship focused on cheapness and efficiency: the best workers, citizens, and taxpayers were those who kept costs down and productivity up.”1
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