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Smoke and mirrors: a history of denial

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The sound rises up from the American South, rolling, lilting across the land, travelling its broad deltas and vast plains. It is the sound of tobacco being auctioned. “Lemme hear, what do I hear, lemme hear, hear, hear”. Against the backdrop of the auctioneer's smooth, reassuring cadence, tobacco leaves make their journey from the farmer's field to the curing barn. “What do I hear, what do I hear, what do I hear hear hear?”

The sound of tobacco being sold is but the mood setting prelude to an extraordinary film. Smoke and mirrors: a history of denial tells the story of tobacco in the United States, from its role as the colonies' first cash crop to its current status as the globe's corporate “public enemy number 1”.

Director Torrie Rosenzweig, who co-wrote and co-produced the film with Elise Pearlstein, offers up thoughtful interviews with leading researchers, writers, and public health officials, but has also gone far beyond the constraints of the talking head documentary. From a wanted poster of the 1880s (“Wanted 1000 girls & 500 boys—14-21—to learn to make little cigars. Clean factory. No dust and no bad air”) to the “7 Dwarfs”, the tobacco industry bosses who testified in 1994 that nicotine was not addictive, Smoke and mirrors has captured it all on film.

James Bonsack and his automated cigarette making machine ushered in the modern era of tobacco's exponential growth. Pictures of Bonsack, his machine and his 1881 patent papers are displayed, as Allan Brandt, Harvard professor of the history of medicine, succinctly assesses the innovation's significance: “Once you can produce 70–100 thousand cigarettes a day, you need to find out how to sell them.” And, as this film reminds us, the tobacco industry proved itself a particularly fast learner.

Rosenzweig has uncovered what must be one of the earliest motion picture ads for tobacco, an 1897 spot for Admiral cigarettes, by the Edison Company. A few men sit on a bench smoking as two others walk into the frame carrying a sagging banner that reads, “We all smoke”. Quaint, charming and, yet, the first salvo in what has been a century of increasingly subtle incitations to light up.

Smoke and mirrors features a number of memorable ad campaigns, either selling or attacking tobacco. The famous “I need smokes more than anything else” first world war recruitment poster, inspired by Admiral Pershing and his tobacco starved American Expeditionary Force, highlights another pivotal moment in tobacco's growing social acceptability. Equally damning are the moving pictures of earnest, smiling Red Cross nurses in their starched white uniforms, eagerly rolling cigarette packs into neat little care bundles. By contrast, an early poster of “The Fatal Cigarette—The white-robed plaything of death” is no match for one showing “A patriotic lad who aided the tobacco fund”.

Rosenzweig also unearths interviews with advertising icons Edward Bernays, the man who offered women “torches of liberty”, and Leo Burnett, responsible for the fateful, rugged cowboy campaign that turned Marlboro into the world's leading brand. An aged Burnett positively lights up when he recalls the new look that was being proposed for Marlboro. “We slapped this together in a matter of 24 hours. It was the greatest thing I ever saw. Every instinct I had, said ‘this is it’”. And his instincts were sadly right.

The anti-tobacco forces have not had the financial muscle to match the industry's advertising power, but Smoke and mirrors underscores some significant triumphs, from the surgeon general's report of 1964 to the Fairness Doctrine ads that followed soon after, to the “7 Dwarfs” congressional testimony that has helped fuel today's anti-industry climate.

Classic smoking clips from films likeCasablanca, To Have and Have Not, and Now, Voyager and from a “Winston break” on The Flintstones TV cartoon, complete the portrait of an industry still able to seduce and cajole viewers. Commentators like Philip Hilts (New York Times journalist and author of Smokescreen), Stan Glantz, (former TC chairman) Michael Pertschuk and, particularly, historian Brandt, set the scenes in context, but is there any match for Lauren Bacall asking Humphrey Bogart for a match?

Impeccably crafted and skilfully researched, Smoke and mirrors illuminates a troubling story with extraordinary images, rich music, and insightful analysis. This is one of the best movies ever made about a very bad business.

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  • Would readers please note that this review was authored as follows:

    STAN SHATENSTEIN
    Editor, Tobacco News Online, Montréal, Québec, Canada; shatensteins{at}sympatico.ca

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