Sometimes, the history of everyday things and activities can be thought-provoking. For instance, smoking, which has existed for centuries, in the context of the 20th century mass adoption of cigarettes is one of such topics. The non-fiction book Cigarette Nation: Business, Health, and Canadian Smokers, 1930-1975 describes the history of cigarette smoking in Canada and how the population adopted this habit and stuck with it despite evident health risks. The strengths of the book in its use of primary sources, deep and detailed historical perspective, and a brilliant analysis of the use of marketing by tobacco companies. Meanwhile, its few weaknesses can be stated as some potential anti-smoking bias and narrow focus on the time period, without the implications for modern-day outcomes. Cigarette Nation is a surprisingly invigorating and intriguing non-fiction that explores the peak age of cigarette smoking, societal attitudes, and the conniving practices of the tobacco industry, all while being easy to navigate, read, and understand.
Cigarette Nation: Business, Health, and Canadian Smokers, 1930-1975 by Daniel J. Robinson starts its narrative in the era of the Great Depression and the 1930s, when cigarette smoking became popularized and significant social activity, a representation of the ‘modern man’ as well social changes such as women adopting smoking. At that time tobacco companies already held significant influence and monopolistic levels of power over farmers and retailers. The narrative then transitions to World War II, where the cigarette took a new meaning and became a major activity, particularly among military members. In the next era of the 1950s, the causal link between smoking and lung cancer was established. Despite these known health risks, popularization and rise of smoking continued through the 1960s and 70s which is where the historical narrative cuts off.
During this time, the tobacco companies undertook a massive public campaign and marketing initiatives in attempts to disprove scientific facts and government anti-smoking propaganda while using marketing to ease the conscience of cigarette smoking in the population. These firms famously used the ‘hope and doubt’ strategy, reassuring smokers with hope via effective advertising while creating doubt about the medical science of smoking risks. Smoking persisted heavily due to this along with product development, retailing innovation, and carefully crafted public relations marketing. Robinson focuses on these aspects of massive deception and misleading practices by cigarette producers in the mid-20th century in the latter part of the book.
The organization of the book is highly structured and logical. The first four chapters present a nearly chronological history of cigarette smoking, while also touching on various aspects regarding the topic at the time. It is not only a brief history of cigarette smoking, but providing vignettes and anecdotes, examples of advertising from the time, and focusing on various perspectives such as that of the government, medical community, farmers, and retailers, demonstrating how views evolved through the decades. Each chapter is divided into subheadings as if being written as an essay. Beginning with the fifth chapter, the book transitions into a more thematic exploration with the chapters focusing on the strategy of the tobacco companies, the marketing efforts made, and finally the government efforts to reduce smoking. There is a dedicated theme to each chapter, but there are still some chronological narratives within them and the common overarching themes are seen throughout. Therefore, this book utilizes two types of text structure often seen in nonfiction which is chronological order and then descriptive (thematic) focusing on specific characteristics of the topic (NSTA, n.d.). Overall, the organization is well-positioned for the topic, easy to navigate, and strongly contributes to the general interest and understanding of the broader context of the history behind cigarette smoking in mid-20th century Canada.
The major argument emphasized by Robinson (2021) throughout the whole book is that cigarette and tobacco companies used their tremendous influence and finances to warp the social perspective on smoking in order to build addictive habits and generate sales within the urban populations of Canada. Cigarettes which were initially banned in the beginning of the 20th century made a comeback and with the help of advertisement were presented as the vital element of social connection and reducing stress, ranging from the men and women of the Great Depression era to the trenches of WWII to the office workers of the post-war time. Despite well-known, publicly advertised health risks that began to emerge in the 1950s, people continued to smoke due to the highly coordinated, strategically developed, and ingeniously created marketing campaigns of these cigarette producers.
In the award-winning television series Mad Men, which is set in the 1960s US, the protagonist is attempting to create an advertisement for a major tobacco firm within a slew of competition. He says, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is ok” (American Movie Classics Company, 2008). This quote perfectly captures the underlying theme to the nonfiction Cigarette Nation, as Robinson meticulously and in great detail explain the decades-long efforts by tobacco companies to subvert the public perception. They did everything to make sure that the population felt free and reassured, and highly-paid advertisement agencies along with paid science, public speakers, politicians, and public figures openly smoking – everything contributed to it. Government and public health efforts were largely negligible until the later years in the 1960s and 70s. In the end of it all, Robinson through this book is attempting to show that the significant power of capitalism and money was able to manipulate tens of millions of people simply to generate more profit, highlighting the importance of identifying truth in sources and carefully examining the impact of media on one’s opinions and perceptions.
Types of Evidence
Robinson uses a wide variety of evidence and overwhelming academic and empirical support for his arguments. First, the book is written with each chapter having citations in the Turabian style, with each fact or statement labeled by a number. At the end of the book, there is a reference section, with each chapter individually organized, allowing to match the footnote to the citation. The evidence is tremendous ranging from news articles, public publications, letters, and advertisements of the respective time periods to books, journal articles, court cases, and investigative publications. Throughout the book, there are also visual examples of various advertisements, publications, excerpts, quotes, and other supporting evidence that would serve to supplement the text. A wide range of evidence is vital in nonfiction, and strongly contributes as essential proof to the author’s argument. Particularly in a potentially contentious topic such as this, where history is against tobacco companies, in order to seem as unbiased as possible, the author should provide valid evidence. Despite the book being a nonfiction, it still presents a narrative, and it serves as the compilation and interpretation of evidence (Blauman, 2016). Evidence-based writing of nonfiction consists of being masterful to use proof to support the claims in a justifiable matter, which Robinson does in a highly organized approach.
In his nonfiction book Cigarette Nation, Robinson shatters the seemingly aesthetic act of social cigarette smoking that can be seen in old films or photographs. While in modernity, smoking has declined exponentially, given the public knowledge and proof of the health risks that cigarettes cause, this book tells the story of how society arrived at that point. Robinson’s work contributes to the academic scholarship on smoking but also provides an accessible narrative on a very long and deep history of cigarettes in Western society, with an emphasis on Canada. The in-depth analysis of all involved stakeholders, interconnected phenomena, and an absolutely brilliant digestion of the marketing strategies utilized by the tobacco firms are eye-opening. The power and reach of the cigarette producers were extensive and various efforts made to make cigarettes ubiquitous with positive emotions on multiple levels highlighted the millions put into marketing by the companies to maintain the status quo and illusion of normalcy. Robinson’s book does not just translate the facts, it truly contributes to the emotions and outrage surrounding such unethical actions and the modern lawsuits which have exposed much of this evidence.
In reading Cigarette Nation, the author of this review, despite having no connection or interest of the topic, was highly intrigued and drawn it. The book is simple to read, understandable to the general public, and organized in an accessible manner. Most importantly, the style of writing and overall perspectives on the topic, a well-formed narrative mixing anecdotal evidence with real-life stories to the complexities of marketing strategy, strongly captivates the reader. This book is both one of the most comprehensive but also compelling, engaging, and thought-provoking nonfictions of recent times. It is a recommended read to anyone remotely interested in the topic or general history of Canada or Western society in the 1950s.
American Movie Classics Company. (2008). Mad Men. United States: Lion Gate Films Home Entertainment.
Blauman, L. (2016). Teaching evidence-based writing: Nonfiction. Sage Publications.
NSTA. (n.d.). Teaching nonfiction text structure. Web.
Robinson, D.J. (2021). Cigarette nation: business, health, and Canadian smokers, 1930-1975. McGill-Queen’s University Press.