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Commodity of Doom

Elegies for the cigarette

Pfizer Inc., the multinational corporation responsible for pharmaceutical blockbusters Viagra and Lipitor, made Hollywood history in 2018 with a campaign for Chantix, a smoking cessation aid known to induce nightmares and suicidal ideation. The package features actor Ray Liotta, famous for his role as mafioso Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a film engulfed in smoke: one long take tightens slowly on Robert De Niro’s Jimmy Conway flaunting the gestural affordances of the cigarette to the tune of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”; a climactic sequence frames Hill, strung out on cocaine, as he lights up, anxious behind the wheel of his Cadillac, a police helicopter tailing him from above—or so he thinks. “In the movies, a lot of times I tend to play the tough guy,” Liotta confesses to the prospective prescribee, “but I wasn’t tough enough to quit on my own until I tried Chantix.”

One could be forgiven for seeing a bit of Hill, who turns informant by the end of Scorsese’s film, in Liotta’s testimonial: the wise guy accent is no con. Luther Terry, John F. Kennedy’s appointee to Surgeon General, had only recently traded cigarettes for the occasional pipe or cigar when his 1964 report Smoking and Health silenced any reasonable doubt that cigarettes are deadly; in 1968, Bill Talman, who played the district attorney on Perry Mason, shot an anti-smoking public service announcement that aired after he had already died from lung cancer, at age fifty-three; and two years later, Tony Curtis represented the American Cancer Society for its “I Quit” campaign in honor of his father, another casualty to smoking. To frame these efforts using the logic of the mob (stool pigeon, rat) or contemporary political discourse (flip-flopping, backtracking) would be an affront to their obvious contributions to public health: in 1965, nearly half of Americans over the age of eighteen smoked cigarettes, while in 2018 the number was under fourteen percent, which yields a differential of lives saved in the millions. People are allowed to change their minds, and often should, but the choice to quit is no trivial anti-endorsement of a product. Like acting, it is the adoption of a new identity: as Sarah Milov argues in The Cigarette: A Political History, the quitter becomes the “nonsmoker,” the contentious, paradigmatic figure of an interest group invented by activists and lawyers in the 1970s.

Many nicotine addicts would have it that there is no such thing as an “ex-smoker”: once hooked, the monkey can never be evicted from one’s back, no matter how long since the last dose.

Many nicotine addicts would have it that there is no such thing as an “ex-smoker,” which Liotta claims to be: once hooked, the monkey can never be evicted from one’s back, no matter how long since the last dose. After three nonsmoking decades, Leonard Cohen resumed the habit on his eightieth birthday (“It’s been one of my few consistent thoughts,” he told Rolling Stone); as Tom Waits convinces Iggy Pop in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, “The beauty of quitting is, now that I’ve quit, I can have one, ’cause I’ve quit.” To abstain after the thirst has been established is to live a life in acceptance and fear of unforced error, whether relapse or disease, that is alternately Buddhist and Puritan. C. Everett Koop, Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General, dreamed in 1984 of a “smoke-free society by the year 2000,” but Waterworld’s vision of the future in 1995 imagined lone wolf dirt trader Kevin Costner in post-apocalyptic 2500 still fighting a Dennis Hopper-led gang of pirates named after their anachronistic habit: the Smokers. A textbook case of a manmade disaster, the smoking epidemic may never be fully contained: though global rates are in decline, the World Health Organization reported prevalence to be on the rise in Eastern Europe and Africa in 2015, and its popularity among the working class, in the absence of lesser indignities, is by now a cliché. Smoking is not an issue of individual liberty, as the conservative lobbyists for Big Tobacco or the pro-tobacco anarchists of Nell Zink’s Nicotine make it out to be, so much as a human condition, a signifier for what we have accomplished in agriculture, economics, government, science, labor, organization, thought, and expression across the modern era and the toll it has taken on our collective well-being.

Man and Camel

Immanuel Kant, who smoked a pipe of tobacco with his tea once or twice a day, described the aesthetic category of the sublime as a “negative pleasure”: “incompatible with charms,” as “the mind is not just attracted by the object but is alternately always repelled as well.” Not unlike the feeling of respect, sublimity is greeted by the Kantian subject with a manic combination of satisfaction and fear, a sense of pride in the superiority of human intellect at the expense of imaginative and physical fallibility. A frisson of euphoria and disgust, or as Richard Klein writes in Cigarettes Are Sublime, “a darkly beautiful, inevitably painful pleasure that arises from some intimation of eternity.” The “taste of infinity in a cigarette” presents to the smoker a philosophical “edge of the abyss”: mortality, selfhood, existence. For Annie Leclerc, in Au feu du jour, “the cigarette is the prayer of our time.”

To abstain after the thirst has been established is to live a life in acceptance and fear of unforced error, whether relapse or disease, that is alternately Buddhist and Puritan.

But our time is not theirs, and once Klein had written his groundbreaking cultural history of the cigarette in 1993, the study, as the author admits in the acknowledgments, was “long overdue.” The book—his first, late in a career as a French professor at Cornell—was an attempt to quit, and on both counts Klein succeeded, surveying with the clarity of a fresh convert tobacco’s contemporaneity with “the Age of Anxiety”: modernity, whose origins in the sixteenth century coincide with the introduction of the plant to Europe. Klein sees in cigarettes the angel of death, but also an agent of civilization, “one of America’s proudest contributions to the world.” Except perhaps for Coca-Cola and the Big Mac, no other commodity has been endowed with the symbolic weight of patriotism, affluence, democracy, and freedom so liberally, internationally, or duplicitously as flue-cured tobacco from the Tar Heel State, nor do many consumer goods propose a more fitting metonym for capitalism itself: a product so lethal its wrath engendered scientific proof that desire can be manufactured. The inhalation of nicotine triggers dopamine receptors in the brain even as its gaseous vessel poisons the lungs, blood, and heart, but in literature and film, Klein discovers an aesthetic function: cigarettes kill time, offering their smoker a means of expression, an extension of the self. Henry Ford denounced “the Little White Slaver” for stealing manhours, and misguidedly or not, the smoke break became the gold standard of collective bargaining for most of the American Century, its addictive pull demanding a punctuation of life, a temporary halt to production, and a reprieve from the monotony of labor before announcing an inevitable if premature full stop.

The literature of smoking is expansive, encompassing Carmen and Symbolism through noir and self-help, of which Allan Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking, first published in 1985, is the classic, though its effectiveness has not been empirically proven. Certain reference points recur: Mark Twain, to whom the witticism “Giving up smoking is easy; I’ve done it thousands of times” is dubiously attributed; novelist Paul Auster’s films Smoke and Blue in the Face, mid-nineties knee-jerks over an increasingly nonsmoking world; Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich, and the novel Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo. The latter is presented in the form of a confession, as its Italian title implies, written at the behest of a psychoanalyst who apologizes in advance for the volume, presaging first-person fictions by J. D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Ken Kesey, and Philip Roth. Svevo, a Triestine Jew born Ettore Schmitz, wrote the novel after retiring from a youthful attempt at literary fame to work for his family’s paint manufacturing business; he found it, in the end, with the help of his English tutor, James Joyce, who helped publicize the book, leading to the publication of translated excerpts in Paris in 1926. A relentless smoker like his protagonist, Zeno Cosini, who declares every cigarette to be his last in endless succession, Svevo was hospitalized two years later, following a car accident, his deathbed request for one more smoke denied: “That would have been my last,” he was reported to say.

Svevo aside, few writers have captured the indulgent narcissism endemic to the tobacco fiend with the self-consciousness required to be comic or profound. Zeno is solipsistic, narcissistic, and dull; the dry irony with which Svevo illustrates this, in uninterrupted monologue of what some have called “the Italian of a bookkeeper” (his third language, after his native dialect and his father’s, German), broadly skewers the provincial manners and values of bourgeois society in Europe at the turn of the century, though the circumstances of the protagonist’s life often resemble Svevo’s own. Autofiction and memoir are dominant modes in writing about smoking, which in the nonsmoking era, takes on an alternately macho, louche, philosophical, and quasi-libertarian scent with Karl Ove Knausgaard, Michel Houellebecq, Will Self, Luc Sante, Christopher Hitchens, or Mac DeMarco. Klein makes much of the cigarette’s function as a representation of thought, and yet, it is not thought: writers who mistake smoking for work, though both require paper, alienate themselves from their own labor, luxuriating in vice while readers hold their breath. Gregor Hens’s Nicotine is one example: a book-length essay in which the reformed smoker waxes poetic on cigarettes past while dissecting a Benson & Hedges in the style of a coroner performing an autopsy. The book is a self-invitation to belletristic musings which are not without some insight (“Smokers know from their own experience that in certain situations their fellow smokers would pay a lot more for a cigarette, they would give anything for one, but a code of honor prevents them from profiting from the addiction of others”), but mostly fail to connect: like smoking itself, as Klein writes, nicotine “does not serve any purpose, has no aim outside itself.”

These are Kant’s criteria for a work of art, though, and the anxiety and shame smoking relieves and incurs can provide an “axe for the frozen sea within us,” as Franz Kafka wrote literature must be. Deborah Eisenberg began her first short story, “Days,” writing,

I had never known what I was like until I stopped smoking, by which time there was hell to pay for it. When the haze cleared over the charred landscape, the person I had always assumed to be behind the smoke was revealed to be a tinny weights-and-balances apparatus, rapidly disassembling on contact with oxygen.

In Eisenberg’s story, the narrator transforms from “smoker” to “ex-smoker” to “runner” to just “I,” flatly reflecting the dissolution and reconstitution of one’s ego demanded by quitting. As The New York Times Magazine reports, Eisenberg, who smoked three packs of Gauloises a day by the time she was thirty, wrote “Days” at the suggestion of her longtime partner, Wallace Shawn, an asthmatic, in an effort to stop. She became a writer in the process—as did Klein, and Svevo’s Zeno. A relapse can be just as defining. Driving home from brunch with her family on April 13, 1997, Eve Babitz, an off-and-on smoker, permitted herself a Tiparillo cigar,

one of those fashionable but hideous cherry-flavored ones I loved because smoking them made me feel like Clint Eastwood; everyone else hated them. I grabbed one of those wooden matches, struck it against the sandpaper side of the box, when all of a sudden the match fell from my hand. The gauzy skirt I’d put on to go out dancing later went up in flames; my pantyhose melted to my legs. Thank God for sheepskin Uggs, which protected my lower legs from burns. I tried swatting the fire with my hands, but it was hopeless.

Babitz’s third-degree injury kept her in the hospital for weeks, as she writes in “I Used to Be Charming,” the titular essay of her New York Review Books collection of nonfiction. “Kicking nicotine, as everyone knows, is the worst thing in the world, worse than kicking heroin, according to friends who should know. You can imagine what I was going through: not only was I in the burn unit but I was being forced to kick tobacco cold turkey.” For Babitz, the desire to finish her book (“If you’re a writer, tobacco is all that works”) brought on a crisis of faith, a close call, and hope (“Having been through getting sober in a twelve-step program, I knew that even when things seemed horrible, there was always a chance that they could turn around”), but not without a trace of guilt: “I imagined how pissed off my friends would be if they heard I actually died from trying to light a cigar.”

Everybody’s Shit List

On both sides of the aisle, the twenty-first-century smoker cuts a transgressive figure, as was the case prior to World War I, when cigarettes became a mechanism of American expansion, a slicker instrument of chemical warfare than mustard gas. The twentieth century, Peter Sloterdijk writes in Terror from the Air, “will be remembered as the age whose essential thought consisted in targeting no longer the body, but the enemy’s environment.” In the Progressive Era, Ford, Yale economist Irving Fisher, and reformer Lucy Page Gaston of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Cigarette League all railed against the threats smoking posed, as Milov writes, “to the ordering institutions of society, weakening the fiber of the nation, slowing down work, and squandering family resources.” But how rebellious can such a reliable consumer be? When, in response to a 1977 city-wide near-ban on public smoking in Berkeley, California, one Telegraph Avenue bookstore owner defied the ordinance, citing “local government being influenced by a concealed puritanism.” He expressed an attitude shared by the counterculture with tobacco’s most ardent defenders today: Republicans. “The political history of the cigarette,” Milov argues, “highlights the connections between the politics of the body and those of the body politic.” The golden age of Big Tobacco overlaps neatly with the history of neoliberalism, though Milov prefers the term associationalism: “the achievement of public policy goals through private means.” Gesturing toward wider issues of public health, environmentalism, corporate influence, and local and state governance, Milov’s history “forces us to strip away sentimentalities about the twentieth century,” not least of which is a seeming paradox: “the power of the tobacco industry waned at the precise moment that other large American businesses saw their political power increase along with the fortunes of the New Right.”

After three nonsmoking decades, Leonard Cohen resumed the habit on his eightieth birthday: “It’s been one of my few consistent thoughts,” he said.

Milov’s book builds upon the foundation laid by three important histories of Big Tobacco: Richard Kluger’s Ashes to Ashes, Allan Brandt’s The Cigarette Century, and Robert Proctor’s Golden Holocaust. The scholarship of Brandt and Proctor, academic historians, has informed policy directly, and both authors testified for the prosecution in United States v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., as Milov notes. Scholarly focus on cigarette manufacturers, according to Milov, obscures

the extent to which tobacco was a normal part of American political economy—and one enabled by the United States’ postwar economic hegemony. Government bureaucracies working hand-in-hand with agricultural interest organizations were coconspirators in making the cigarette century.

This is to say that Big Tobacco was able to afflict the world with nicotine dependency and secondhand smoke only by means of a politics rooted in the belief that public good is attainable through private interest. Were there no New Deal tobacco program (which sold growing rights as a commodity akin to the taxi medallion), wartime soldier’s rations, or postwar export programs, the cigarette could not have sustained the agricultural economy of the American Southeast until 2004, when the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act ended the federal marketing quota and price support loans. Inspired by the civil rights movement, advocates of “public interest” in the 1960s and 1970s—attorneys Ralph Nader and John Banzhaf, women-founded grassroots organizations like Group Against Smokers’ Pollution (GASP) and Environmental Improvement Associates, and nascent regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—demanded rights for nonsmokers who, in the market-centric logic of post-Fordist America, came to be defined by their “cheapness and efficiency: the best workers, citizens, and taxpayers were those who kept costs down and productivity up.” Dr. Koop’s eschatological Y2K was only two years off from the passage of New York City’s Smoke-Free Air Act, which exiled smokers outdoors, where they continue to huddle in diminishing numbers, with hardened solidarity, when they are not confined to their homes.

A relentless smoker like his protagonist, Zeno Cosini, who declares every cigarette to be his last in endless succession, Italo Svevo was hospitalized following a car accident, his deathbed request for one more smoke denied.

Nell Zink satirizes this smokers omertà in her 2016 novel Nicotine, whose community of squatters, terrain previously trod with cringe by Auster, pre-Occupy, in 2010’s Sunset Park, coalesces in the name of smokers’ rights. Where Milov finds fault in the generation of activists who invented the concept of the nonsmoker, arguing that their appropriation of “the rhetoric of the African-American civil rights movement, the ultimate American quest for justice and liberation” concealed “the class-based nature of their claims,” Zink inverts the scenario, using the ideological defense of smoking as a device with which to ridicule the hypocrisy and shallowness of contemporary activism, placing overeducated hipsters in hyperbolically diverse communes where they eat garbage and fuck, or the designated smoking areas of anti-globalist protests, far from the frontlines. The novel takes its name from a derelict house in Jersey City that is the rightful inheritance of Penny Baker, a recent business school graduate whose father, a hippie psychiatrist who adopted Penny’s mother, of the Colombian Kogi people, Woody Allen-style when she was thirteen. After her father dies, Penny falls in love with the first occupier she meets, a dreamy asexual who chews loose tobacco pilfered from American Spirits, while her half-brother Matt, a tech yuppie whom she accused of incest at the dawn of her own adolescence, emerges the obvious villain. Nicotine is not a good novel—it suffers surface-level plot holes and expends more parodic energy on its subjects than they seem to be worth—but Zink wisely identifies the adolescent contrarianism and cavalier entitlement of the twenty-first-century smoker, flaunting disobedience as an intellectual stance like a teenager who just finished The Stranger. As one of Zink’s characters puts it, smokers constitute their own subaltern, “a step below meth-heads”: “People walk around fucked-up on illegal drugs, on prescription drugs—on anything they want—and nobody cares. But smoke a cigarette, and you’re on everybody’s shit list.” The implied argument—that the notion of public interest necessarily balkanizes into increasingly precious and self-serving identities—could be teased out of Milov’s own, though hinging the joke on undeserved victimhood is a common trope of ineffective comedy.

The Last Cigarette

The unrepentant smoker is not without cause to feel out of time: the world has, in many ways, left her behind. For the generations brought up on the Marlboro Man, who debuted in 1955, and the European-born Joe Camel (1974-1997; he arrived in the U.S. in 1988), smoking was the gateway to incomparable masculinity, composition, and cool: though I smoked my first cigarette six years after his image was discontinued, it was to Old Joe’s credit that there was a hump on my pack. Nonsmokers, Hens’s therapist among them, cannot understand the “pang of longing” produced by cigarette advertisements, “every scrunched-up, carelessly thrown away cigarette packet at a bus stop, every trod-on cigarette butt, every beautiful woman holding a cigarette between her fingers or just looking like she could be holding one.” Anti-smoking campaigns have worked hard to undermine the sexiness of the cigarette to occasionally shocking ends, but what’s more erotic than danger? The popularity of vaping must be tied to medical ignorance of its long-term effects, though were uncertainty eradicated, it is unlikely that the Juul would be too.

Unless the government were to do something about it. Milov’s history suggests that smoke ’em if you got ’em still abides because of concessions made to private industry by the federal government early on, as well as preemption laws like those pursued by the tobacco industry, which curtail “democratic engagement on a variety of issues—from indoor-smoking restrictions to minimum wage laws to the removal of Confederate monuments.” Even as industries deregulated to Big Tobacco’s ironic detriment, thirty-one states enacted laws preempting bans and restrictions on the sale and consumption of tobacco between 1982 and 1998, and GASP estimates that in 2018, 41 percent of workers in the U.S. were exposed to secondhand smoke on the job (the rates were higher for African Americans). The persistence of smoking in cities like Las Vegas or Atlanta, where the best bars are thick with carbon monoxide, hazards mortality and aestheticizes it at the same time, defying the new order out of nostalgia for the recently belated, abandoning the imperative to life in favor of the pleasure principle and the death drive.

Milov does not go so far as to diagnose this position as conservative or reactionary, though she does acknowledge the role smokers’ rights played in the development of the Tea Party. Like most public health crises—poverty, obesity, gun violence, AIDS, or Covid-19—smoking reflects preexisting socioeconomic disparities: “Smokers are poorer and less educated than nonsmokers, and they are more likely to live in rural and impoverished communities, where lung cancer rates are 20 percent higher than in urban areas.” The contradictions inherent to the history of the cigarette, from the moralistic biopolitics of the nonsmoking movement and the anti-government populism of tobacco’s remaining loyalists to the rush to the head and the burn at the back of the throat, reproduce a prophetic narrative of capitalism in miniature: of accumulation, growth, exploitation, and imminent self-destruction, but the story isn’t over yet, and the industry’s investment in the Trump administration is high stakes and extensive. Just as the smoker’s identity is defined by a relationship with an object, space, and as Klein shows, time, the nonsmoker is born in relation to others who may be unhealthier, lacking in discipline or fear of death, guided by different values and allowances of privilege. Looking back on his life, Svevo’s Zeno esteems his resolutions “less extreme, and my weakness finds greater indulgence in my elderly soul. When we are old, we smile at life and at everything it contains.” But not all of us are lucky enough to die after so long, or with such climactic repose. If emphysema, cancer, heart failure, or stroke don’t get you, neoliberalism will, as was the case for Eric Garner and George Floyd, murdered by racist police under the pretense of unlawful trade: selling loosies without tax stamps, buying a pack with an allegedly counterfeit bill. Like Zeno, neither could have recognized his final cigarette for what it was, nor the figurative resonance that would transform their famous last words into a rallying cry for victims of a disease that is social before it can be physiological, no matter how many coroners are brought in to say otherwise.