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Tobacco U.S.A.: The Industry Behind the Smoke Curtain

CHAPTER 1: The Traitor

On a sweltering summer day in Miami, Florida, the top executive of a cigarette company turned up the heat on his counterparts at other firms.

Bennett LeBow, owner of the Liggett Group, stepped to the witness stand in Dade County circuit court on July 21, 1997. He swore to speak truthfully and then told the jury something no American tobacco company executive had ever publicly admitted under oath: "We believe, for many people, smoking is very addictive."

Does smoking, he was asked, cause lung cancer, heart and lung diseases and emphysema?

"The answer is yes."

LeBow's testimony was not a surprise: He had been negotiating with lawyers over this admission for more than a year. But his blunt statement in open court symbolized the dramatic turnaround the previous three years had brought in the long-running conflict among cigarette makers, legislators, health advocates and the public. For four decades, while thousands of scientific studies showed that cigarettes were powerfully addictive and the cause of deadly diseases, tobacco industry executives had hung together in denials.

Statistics did not prove anything, industry spokesmen insisted. Tobacco use was a choice, they said, not an addiction. After all, millions of smokers had quit. In spring of 1994, the top executives of the seven biggest tobacco companies in the United States -- including the chief executive officer of Liggett -- had stood together before a congressional subcommittee and sworn that they believed these things.

But in 1997, Liggett broke ranks.

Liggett & Myers, as the firm was previously known, had been one of the biggest cigarette makers when its Chesterfield brand commanded a quarter of the American cigarette market in the mid-1920s. But Liggett's position in the industry had slipped, and by the mid-'90s it was the smallest of the five leading U.S. cigarette firms and was struggling to survive; all of its brands combined accounted for less than 2 percent of cigarette sales.

When 22 states sued the tobacco industry to recover money spent on medical care for smokers, Liggett Group defied the industry's longstanding united front and agreed to release thousands of company documents. The other firms mounted an intense legal battle to keep the papers secret. But it was a losing fight.

Documents that Liggett released in spring of 1997 revealed that tobacco executives and company scientists believed in the 1950s that smoking caused cancer; that the firms had worked out marketing plans to appeal to particular ethnic groups; and that they had actively marketed cigarettes to teenagers. And in July, Bennett LeBow himself testified in court that the industry's major cigarette makers, often collectively called Big Tobacco, knew and had known for a long time how cigarettes can harm humans. At the same time, similar papers from the files of other companies were finding their way into the light.

What followed over the next year and a half was the remarkable public battering of an industry that was once believed – and that seemed to believe itself – invulnerable. Lawmakers in Congress who had long been allies of Big Tobacco hesitated or flat-out refused to protect the industry. Even smokers called for governmental controls.

Why had Big Tobacco's fortunes changed so much?

For one thing, smoking in the United States had declined sharply: In 1966, almost 43 percent of American adults smoked; by 1997, that figured had fallen to about 25 percent. So not only had the tobacco industry lost much of its support among consumers, but politicians saw that sticking up for Big Tobacco was not going to win them many elections. President Bill Clinton, the first actively anti-smoking American president, pressed for regulation of tobacco. And in the courts, lawsuits filed by the states proved harder to overcome than the many earlier suits pursued by individuals.
Decades of pent-up and growing hostility toward the industry, it seemed, were coming to a head. Tobacco executives, accustomed to legal, legislative and economic success, reacted with surprise. Steven F. Goldstone, chief executive of the company that owns giant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, conceded in May 1998: "We did underestimate the emotional content – how angry people have been over this issue."

That anger fuels rhetoric that often portrays Big Tobacco in simplistic terms and casts the anti-tobacco movement as a battle of Good vs. Evil. But the tobacco industry is complex, touching the lives of Americans in many different ways. To understand what has happened to the tobacco industry, it is useful to peer through the smoke at tobacco's long entwinement in the history of our own nation and the industry's current place in the United States and the world.

[Without preaching or pushing an agenda, the book explains the history, politics, economics, agriculture, and health issues of tobacco. With this foundation of knowledge, readers will better be able to understand and evaluate the often highly charged rhetoric coming from all sides.]