Richard Kluger’s Ashes to Ashes

 

Richard Kluger's outrage pulsates throughout Ashes to Ashes.

Richard Kluger's outrage pulsates throughout Ashes to Ashes.

As surprising at it may seem, Richard Kluger’s ability to weave a dizzying array of characters, laws, lawsuits, scientific developments and historical events is not the most noteworthy aspect of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris.

It’s his outrage.

Kluger’s visceral distaste for the actions tobacco executives took to develop, aggressively and relentlessly market, and actively conceal the negative health consequences of, their product pulses throughout his 763-page tome.

The outrage surfaces in his selection of information, in comments that he drops in throughout the book, even until its final sentence.  When discussing the framework for a settlement with the tobacco companies that would forestall future litigation, Kluger writes:

“Such a rational and civilized remedy, though, is probably too much to hope for as slayer of an incubus that has defied all reason, thrived on greed and folly, and driven poor mortals to grasp onto it for succor in a fashion their Maker never designed their bodies to long endure.” 

I am no psychiatrist, and I cannot help but wonder if Kluger’s frustration with political inaction, the companies’ deliberate evasion of responsibility and continued expansion globally both propelled him to write the book and is part of tinges the work with an edge that at times seems bitter. 

While I applaud his passion, and agree with his analysis, the anti smoking perspective at times detracted from my pleasure in reading this remarkable work that deserved the lofty recognition it received and unquestionably put a large marker in the road for others like Allan Brandt to follow in his book, The Cigarette Century (Brandt opens the acknowledgments of his book by crediting Kluger and his work.). 

I recently wrote about The Cigarette Century-you can also see Brandt spar with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show-and previously had read Kluger’s Simple Justice, the story of the quarter-century long battle of Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and others in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to overturn the legal segregation that was authorized in Plessy v. Ferguson.  

Simple Justice ranks up with Common Ground as among my favorite non-fiction books of all time, so I brought very high expectations into my reading of Ashes to Ashes.

To a large degree, they were met.

Kluger opens the book with a description of the tobacco plant and its use throughout the world before starting to focus his attention on the American South, the region that has supplied the vast majority of tobacco to the rest of the nation. 

Characters like James Buchanan Duke, the president of American Tobacco Company, the giant that was eventually disbanded under antitrust legislation in 1911, fill the early pages.  

As the title suggests, Kluger also devotes extensive time to the gradual ascension and ultimate triumph of Philip Morris.  He writes at length about each of the companies’ top executives starting with the early to middle part of the century.  

Like Brandt, Kluger does not only focus on tobacco leaders’ duplicity, even though that is very well represented in both books.  Rather, Kluger’s disappointment in the medical establishment, in which many doctors smoked for years and researchers producing evidence of smoking’s harm were shunned, in politicians’ inaction and in the American Cancer Society’s timid actions are palpable. 

Kluger does write about unlikely sources of anti smoking activism, such as Reagan-era Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who was preceded years earlier by Julius Richmond, one of my father’s professional acquaintances.  Dad and I spoke yesterday how the seeming advance that happened during Richmond’s tenure of putting warning labels on cigarettes was then used by the industry for decades to thwart liability lawsuits. 

Kluger also features myth puncturing researchers and crusading lawyers like Mark Edell and Northeastern University’s Richard Daynard.

As his final sentence implies, Kluger does not hold the individuals who use and become addicted to the cigarettes as fully accountable for their actions.  While I understand his perspective, I do not completely agree with it. 

In the end, this is a story of the companies’, rather than the activists’, victory.   Published in 1996, two years before the landmark settlement with Attorneys Generals throughout the country, Ashes to Ashes is an impressive and highly worthwhile book, even if the tone at times can interfere just slightly with the reader’s pleasure. 

I will seek to contact Kluger, now in his 76th year, and find out his thoughts about the industry’s current state.

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