Cigarette Century


In the summer of 1987 the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled that these warnings on cigarette packages are sufficient to protect the tobacco companies against lawsuits claiming injury or death from smoking; the ruling dismissed the case of Palmer v. Liggett Group , filed in 1983 and seeking damages for $3 million for the death of Joseph C. Palmer from lung cancer in 1980. In the case of Cipollorte v. Liggptt Group, Lorillard, Inc., and Philip Morris, Inc. , concluded in New Jersey in 1988, the plaintiff herself was found “80 percent responsible” for her illness and its course, and the Liggett Group “20 percent responsible.” The verdict required Liggett to pay the plaintiff’s family an award of $400,000. The jury concluded that Liggett had failed to warn of health risks and had misled the public with its advertising slogans prior to 1966, when the first warning-label rule took effect, but the tobacco companies were exonerated of having conspired to misrepresent the dangers of smoking. The defense called the award “an expression of sympathy by the jury”; it was voided on appeal in January 1990, and then went to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in June of this year that warning labels did not pre-empt all damage suits, and opened the way for a retrial of the Cipollone case. Moreover, by ruling that Congress had “offered no sign that it wished to insulate cigarette manufacturers from longstanding rules governing fraud,” the court threw the door wide open for future damage suits alleging that tobacco companies concealed information about the dangers of smoking or otherwise deceived smokers.


The biggest change in cigarettes themselves since the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report has been the proliferation of low-tar, low-nicotine filtered cigarettes. Filters were first added to cigarettes long before there was public concern about the dangers of smoking. Viceroy advertised them in 1939: “ AT LAST … a cigarette that filter each puff clean! … No more tobacco in mouth or teeth.” After Wynder and Graham’s 1950 report and the 1953 Sloan-Kettering Report, filters came into progressively greater public demand, and by the 1960s they had practically taken over the market.

Unfortunately, the advantages of low-tar and low-nicotine “light” cigarettes have proven to be largely illusory for several reasons: first, while nicotine and tars can be reduced, carbon monoxide is a product of burning, and as long as cigarettes burn, they will produce it; second, confirmed smokers tend to increase their cigarette consumption after switching to lighter brands; and third, studies have found that the risk of heart attack increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day and does not decline when milder ones replace full-strength brands.

The death rate from lung cancer quintupled between 1930 and 1950. There are signs that its rate of increase is finally diminishing—among men, but not women.

Cigarette manufacturers counter by pointing out that a precise chain of events leading from smoking to cancer has never been established, and that no statistical study of smokers and cancer has been able to rule out every other possible variable—factors such as diet, environment, and alcohol consumption. The industry continues to maintain that its product does not harm its users’ health and that it provides pleasurable relaxation. This latter point, at least, is inarguable. Jean Nicot de Villemain, a French ambassador to Lisbon in the late sixteenth century, is said to have sent seeds of the tobacco plant to Catherine de Médicis, Queen of France, around 1556. The product had been brought to Europe from the New World first by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, but it was Nicot who presented it to Catherine and who later achieved immortality when Linnaeus used his name to christen the plant the seeds came from, Nicotiana tabacum . Later the active chemical alkaloid in its leaves was named nicotine.

This is the primary addicting substance in tobacco, and it is readily absorbed into the bloodstream from tobacco smoke in the lungs or from smokeless tobacco in the mouth or nose. Once in the blood, nicotine is rapidly distributed to the brain, where it binds to chemical receptors located throughout the nervous system to quicken the heartbeat, raise the blood pressure, relax skeletal muscles, and affect nearly all the endocrine glands. In regular tobacco users, nicotine levels accumulate in the body during the day and persist at declining levels overnight; as a result, users maintain some degree of exposure to the drug practically around the clock.

For decades there have been organizations that try to help smokers quit, but successive surgeon generals’ reports have found that most ex-smokers have quit spontaneously and on their own. A 1985 national survey estimated that of the 41 million Americans who quit smoking, 90 percent had done so without formal treatment programs or smoking-cessation devices.