Book Review
“If you liked this interview, you’ll love this book”: A Review of Sarah Milov’s <em>The Cigarette: A Political History</em> (2019)

“If you liked this interview, you’ll love this book”: A Review of Sarah Milov’s The Cigarette: A Political History (2019)

The history of the cigarette does not begin and end with Big Tobacco.

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.

Though the Emilia Report focused on literary writers, the same bias against female writers is present in academia. The Chronicle published a special series titled “The Awakening” that included several essays on the theme of women and power in academe, including one from Sharon Marcus arguing that “academic structures equate authority with superiority.” So when one group — white, male — tends to dominate, other groups attribute superiority to them. For women, POC, and LGBTQ+ academics in particular, the assertion of authority frequently results in a power imbalance that tends to negatively affect their achievements.

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:

  1. the manufacture of doubt by Big Tobacco and the clever advertising strategies à la Mad Men and
  2. 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

Book jacket art and author, Sarah Milov. (Image at right by Dan Addison, UVA University Communications)

Milov shows how the political economy of tobacco has been a “thicket of contradictions” and the history of the cigarette part of the history of the government’s complex machinery.2 At the turn of the century, most Americans did not consume tobacco and those who did likely chewed it or smoked in a pipe; this would change starting in 1908, when sales of smoking tobacco exceeded sales of chewing it.3 Concerned about the social and moral implications of cigarettes — including, for instance, that it was a gateway habit to juvenile delinquency — temperate reformers campaigned against the product’s expansion in the market. Milov brilliantly narrates all the various reasons cigarettes were perceived as a threat to the ordering institutions of society: they blurred the lines demarcating the sexes — or worse, unsexed women — were vectors of “degeneracy” accelerated by immigration, reduced workers’ efficiency, and squandered family resources. The reformers’ campaigns were influential enough that states even passed legislation prohibiting the sale of cigarettes.

The Great War marked a turning point in the history of tobacco. Even soldiers were given free cigarettes as a token of appreciation. The cigarette then became reimagined as an emblem of patriotism, and yet it was “both a symptom and a cure for modern times.”4 Falling prices, cooperative associations, and the interrelatedness of the agricultural, financial, and business sectors further expanded the regulatory oversight of tobacco. Milov outlines how, as the New Deal ushered an expansive era of agriculture regulation, tobacco became the most regulated. Stakeholders (the term Milov uses to refer to the collective capitalist enterprise surrounding cigarettes) were invested in regulation because governmental support provided stability where the cooperative between tobacco growers and industry failed — after all, “cigarettes, it would seem, were Depression-proof. Tobacco was not.”5 While chronicling how state regulation helped the tobacco industry flourish, Milov also notes how the New Deal’s racial elitism disproportionately affected black tobacco farmers who sustained greater acreage cuts and a wider displacement of tenants and sharecroppers.

The 1940s recast tobacco “not as an aid to recovery but as a symbol of capitalist consumption itself.” Chronologically narrating the political and economic reorientation of cigarettes within postwar consumerism, Milov outlines how tobacco farmers, cigarette manufacturers, agricultural institutions, government and lobbyists expanded tobacco sales to foreign markets. “Tobacco legitimated the American vision of capitalism and democracy,” even as scientific studies began to draw connections between smoking and cancer.6 Positive economic growth through tobacco sales was more important than the health hazards cigarettes posed to American consumers.

Despite the expanded visions of state economic entitlements, the grassroots anti-tobacco movement of the 1970s sprung up to vindicate calls for public participation and transparency of business interests. The movement represented a slice of America: it was “Woman-led, aspirationally universalistic, and insistent upon the democratization of public space…a foil to the patriarchal, particularistic, and opaque regime that had dominated tobacco politics.”7 Organizations such as GASP — the Group Against Smokers’ Pollution — significantly relied on public interest lawyers to work synergistically to create the nonsmoker. Signs, buttons, stickers, newsletters, “assertive training” workshops, were all instruments of the movement directed towards changing the social tenor of a room — they allowed nonsmokers to assert their rights within public spaces.8

While I admit all the acronyms and references to legislative proceedings halted the narrative flow for me, The Cigarette is a fascinating book on a quintessential American product. By looking beyond Big Tobacco, Milov illustrates surprising interconnections between twentieth-century social movements that coalesced around the cigarette, including environmentalists, activists, labor unions, tobacco farmers, and even cigarette manufacturers. Above all, this is an important book on the politics and power of citizen activism against industry doubt-mongering and government regulation that worked against citizens’ best interests. It’s also a stark reminder of the importance of elevating women historians and acknowledging gender disparities in how research is used and disseminated to the public — something that NPR is apparently closely examining for its internal policies.


  1. Sarah Milov, The Cigarette: A Political History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 7. Return to text.
  2. Milov, The Cigarette, 293. Return to text.
  3. Milov, 23. Return to text.
  4. Milov, 28. Return to text.
  5. Milov, 55. Return to text.
  6. Milov, 88. Return to text.
  7. Milov, 161. Return to text.
  8. Milov, 181. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Cigarette. (Courtesy Sudipto Sarkar/Flickr)

Jaipreet Virdi is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Delaware.