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Where There's Smoke, There's Deceit : NONFICTION : ASHES TO ASHES: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris. By Richard Kluger (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 789 pp.) : THE CIGARETTE PAPERS. By Stanton A. Glantz, John Slade, Lisa A. Bero, Peter Hanauer and Deborah E. Barnes (University of California Press: $29.95; 539 pp.) : SMOKESCREEN: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Cover-Up, By Philip J. Hilts (Addison-Wesley: $22; 288 pp.)

June 23, 1996|Sheryl Stolberg | Sheryl Stolberg is a Times staff writer

There is no more pressing question in American public health today than the matter of what to do about cigarettes, the little white sticks of tobacco that claim some 420,000 American lives each year--more than AIDS, automobile accidents, homicides, suicide and alcohol abuse combined.

If there is a single image that has become fixed in the public mind as a symbol of this controversy, it must be the photograph of what tobacco critics call "the Seven Dwarfs"': seven of the nation's top tobacco industry executives, standing side by side, right hands raised as they solemnly swore to Congress that they did not believe nicotine to be addictive.

That hearing, conducted in 1994 by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), marked the culmination of a calculated history of denial. It does not take a tobacco expert to come to this conclusion; anybody who has ever yearned for a smoke and cup of coffee, or wrestled the quitting demon and lost, knows the executives were offering Congress a crock--or at least a semantic, lawyer-proof version of the truth.

Yet there is a complex history leading up to this point. Now come three books that explore this history, providing some much-needed perspective on America's long-running love-hate relationship with the cigarette.

"Ashes to Ashes," a hefty 100-year chronicle of the cigarette business written by noted novelist and social historian Richard Kluger, is by far the best of the bunch. The author of "Simple Justice" and "The Paper" has written an exhaustive--and, at nearly 800 pages, exhausting--work, so rich in detail that even the most committed reader will have difficulty absorbing all the little gems he unearthed during 6 1/2 years of reporting and writing.

"Tobacco is a hard plant to love," the author begins, in a typically elegant passage describing the peculiarities of Nicotiana tabacum--the soft, downy hair covering its leaves and stalk, the way it grows sticky to the touch in hot weather, the mysterious nature of its addictive property, nicotine.

It is an objective, perfectly neutral opening to a book that achieves its authority with a nonjudgmental tone. What follows is an intricately layered, comprehensive narrative in which Kluger lays neither blame nor praise on those who built up the tobacco industry, and those who have attempted, through science and activism, to tear it down.

He tracks not only the scientific case against tobacco, but also the rise of the industry itself, from the Civil War, before mass manufacturing enabled the tobacco companies to sell their product on a grand scale, to the present-day domination of one company, Philip Morris. Neatly intertwined is the fascinating--and utterly deceitful--role that advertising has played in selling this dangerous product to an unsuspecting public.

Kluger recalls the nifty little slogans of the early days of tobacco, when the case against cigarettes relied more on suspicion than science: "It's toasted!" (Lucky Strike). "That's why I smoke Camels. And I smoke plenty!" "Give your throat a Kool vacation."

Then, he debunks these claims: that Lucky Strike's "special" toasting process removed cigarettes' harmful irritants (there was nothing special about it; all cigarette tobacco is toasted); that Camels had a calming effect ("hardly a scintilla of evidence," Kluger reports); that menthol Kools soothed the throat (in fact menthol, sometimes used as a veterinary anesthetic, simply numbed the throat, masking smoking's harsh effects).

Kluger reveals, as well, the industry's canniness in dealing with government regulators. When, for instance, the Federal Trade Commission first tries to put warning labels on cigarettes, the industry balks, but only as much as it thinks it must to maintain its image. Underneath, the manufacturers know better. They realize that a warning, if written softly enough--without the words "death" or "cancer"--might do them more good than harm, shielding them from liability suits.

"And so," Kluger writes, "the sly tobacco lobbyist Earle Clements said to the industry's lawyers and executives, referring to the health warning label: 'Let's write it.' "

The author brings his book to life with fascinating characters, large and small. Abe Fortas, the former Supreme Court justice, turns up in his role as tobacco lawyer in the 1960s. Sylvester Weaver, the father of actor Sigourney, turns up as a tobacco junior executive in the 1930s. The reader gets to know, and perhaps even admire, Buck Duke--the hard-driving mogul who built a tobacco monopoly at the turn of the century, only to see it busted up by the Supreme Court as an illegal trust--and Joseph F. Cullman III, the shrewd Philip Morris chief who upon his retirement proclaimed: "I never had a crumb of conscience."

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