Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Alum speaks about tobacco litigation

Published: November 2, 2007
Section: News

Brandeis Alumnus and Harvard Professor of the History of Medicine Allan Brandt spoke Wednesday about the legalities and history of anti-tobacco legislation in a lecture entitled Tobacco on Trial: Risk, Responsibility and Litigation. The lecture was part of the Heller Schools Joshua A. Guberman Lecture Series. It comes in conjunction with the publication of Brandts new book Cigarette Century.

During his talk, Brandt discussed American attitudes toward individual and social responsibility about smoking, which he called the key theme of his book. He explained that we tend to have a very high expectation of individual responsibility when someone gets sick from lung caner or other smoking-related diseases. Brandt went on to pose the question, how are we to understand this behavior?

In particular, Brandt addressed the case of one woman, Rose Cipollone, who filed one of the first lawsuits against big tobacco in 1983 after being approached by an attorney named Mark Edell. The case opened up a new field of exploration into the expansion of smoking in American culture in the last century. Almost no one smoked cigarettes as recently as 1900 Brandt explained. But in 2003, about 420,000 Americans died of smoking-related disorders.

Brandt went on to outline the strategies PR expert Edward Bernays used in the 1930s to situate cigarettes as essential to American culture. These strategies included working very closely with Hollywood moguls and with Hollywood stars to put cigarettes in the moves, and persuading American women to associate cigarette smoking with feminism, as well as appealing to patriotism during World War II.

Brandt also talked about tobacco companies response when scientists developed new methods of looking ahead [at] what happens to smokers and nonsmokers if you follow them starting when theyre healthy and scientific evidence that smoking caused cancer became more and more persuasive.

According to Brandt, the response of the companies was to create doubt in the minds of consumers about whether smoking in fact caused cancer. He also commented on how brilliantly the industry put themselves where their users were at any given moment. For example, when smokers began to be concerned about health risk, the companies created the health cigarette with a filter.

But the tobacco industrys primary strategy was to play off of American notions of individual responsibility. The industry wanted [warning] labels on the pack Brandt explained, in order to protect themselves. The purported regulation working in the interests of the industry.

In the case of Rose Cipollone, therefore, Brandt explained that lawyers for tobacco were able to raise the question of was she aware that smoking might be harmful to her health? in order to win the case.

Although you can show that the industry[was] if not criminal, then at least negligent Brandt explained, we tend to hold smokers to the highest degree of responsibility.

Brandt also addressed smoking-related illnesses as increasingly a global issue, citing complex economic as well as health issues. Phillip Morris [is] now making 4 to 5 times the profits in the developing world as theyre making in the United States he said.

Heller School Legal Studies Program Administrator Nancy Feldman called the talk as a success.

Allan Brandt was a dynamic speaker with a wealth of knowledge about the social, medical and legal history of cigarette smoking in the United States and around the world. His techniques as an historian helped him gather material about cigarette companies and their public relations and advertising campaigns that he used as an expert witness in one of the major court cases against big tobacco. A lively discussion followed Brandt's talk. Many found his insights about individual versus public responsibility applicable to a wide variety of issues, she said in an e-mail to The Hoot.