Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition

Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition

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by Robert N. Proctor

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The cigarette is the deadliest artifact in the history of human civilization. It is also one of the most beguiling, thanks to more than a century of manipulation at the hands of tobacco industry chemists. In Golden Holocaust, Robert N. Proctor draws on reams of formerly-secret industry documents to explore how the cigarette came to be the most widely-used drugSee more details below


The cigarette is the deadliest artifact in the history of human civilization. It is also one of the most beguiling, thanks to more than a century of manipulation at the hands of tobacco industry chemists. In Golden Holocaust, Robert N. Proctor draws on reams of formerly-secret industry documents to explore how the cigarette came to be the most widely-used drug on the planet, with six trillion sticks sold per year. He paints a harrowing picture of tobacco manufacturers conspiring to block the recognition of tobacco-cancer hazards, even as they ensnare legions of scientists and politicians in a web of denial. Proctor tells heretofore untold stories of fraud and subterfuge, and he makes the strongest case to date for a simple yet ambitious remedy: a ban on the manufacture and sale of cigarettes.

Editorial Reviews

Harper's Magazine

“Draws on previously confidential industry documents and Proctor’s own experience as the first historian to testify in court about [industry] lies. What lies? How deep into the pleural linings did they go? All the way.”
Mother Jones

“Lays out in head-shaking detail how a handful of companies painstakingly designed, produced, and mass-marketed the most lethal product on the planet.”

“[A] monumental and sobering indictment.”
Science (AAAS)

“Proctor documents a breadth and depth of the industry’s duplicitous actions that is astounding.”
Harper's - Joshua Cohen

“A nearly 800-page book that begins as the Bible of the twentieth-century cigarette industry only to end as its millennial counterblaste.”
The Huffington Post

“Proctor challenges his readers to conceptualize a much happier and healthier world in which the manufacture and sale of cigarettes is prohibited.”
Toronto Globe & Mail

“A landmark study in medicine and the history of science, and of an industry [Proctor] describes as ‘evil.’”
Global Public Health - Katherine E. Kenny Sociology/Science Studies

“Proctor’s extensive use of previously secret tobacco industry documents makes his case convincing, even compelling.”
Jrnl Of American History - Karen Miller Russell

“An invaluable reference for historians interested in the tobacco industry, health and medicine, or marketing in the twentieth century.”
Bulletin Of The History Of Medicine - Barron H. Lerner

“A comprehensive and devastating account of tobacco industry perfidy in promoting the sale of its deadly cigarettes.”
American Historical Review - Carol Benedict

“A historian’s testimony on his own terms. . . . Entertaining and hard-hitting.”
American Journal Of Epidemiology

“A passionate work and not for the faint of heart.”
Chronicle Of Higher Education

“Engaging, inexhaustible with information, and driven.”
Journal of the History of Medicine - Nan Enstad

"Proctor’s book will be of great interest . . . it debunks fraudulent industry claims past and present, provides credible arguments for banning cigarettes, and delineates steps to take before abolition is politically possible. . . . For historians, Proctor’s book particularly calls for serious conversation about ethics and best practices in our era of decreased public support of universities and rising dependence on corporate donors."

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Golden Holocaust

Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition

By Robert N. Proctor


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95043-6


The Flue-Curing Revolution

Fire guides all things.... The death of fire is the birth of air. HERACLITUS

Few discoveries have been so consequential, and it all came about by accident. In 1839, or so the story goes, a Negro slave by the name of Stephen on Abisha Slade's farm in Caswell County, North Carolina, fell asleep while tending the fires inside a tobacco-curing barn. With the fire in danger of dying, the man rushed out and, failing to find any dry wood, gathered up some of the charcoal normally reserved for the blacksmith's forge and threw this onto the fire. Charcoal burns much hotter than wood, which caused the tobacco to cure in a way never before seen. The leaves turned a bright golden yellow and smoked much milder than expected. This was especially true when the method was applied to plants grown in the so-called Piedmont ("foot of the mountain"), a 150-mile sandy stretch of Appalachia from Virginia down through North Carolina, already famous as tobaccoland. This new, blond, bright-leaf, "colory" tobacco fetched a high price on the market and with the proselytizing efforts of Mr. Slade spread quickly through the barns of the Piedmont.

Flue-curing has the name it does by virtue of how heat is transferred to the tobacco leaves during the fermentation process. Low brick chimneys with closed, iron-conduit pipes had been introduced to reduce the risk of fire earlier in the century, and it was through these metal "flues" that charcoal-heated air was pumped to warm the tobacco. Flue-curing was quickly recognized as having two principal advantages: (1) barns were much less likely to catch fire (a big plus in the days of building with wood), and (2) the tobacco would no longer be exposed to smoky fumes that could wreck the taste. The most important consequence, however, was in the realm of smokability. Unlike other varieties prepared by other means, the smoke from flue-cured "bright" or "Virginia" tobacco was easily inhalable.


Now, I suspect some readers may be asking, what is the point of smoking if you don't inhale? The remarkable fact, however, is that for most of human history, or at least those parts when people have been smoking, tobacco was generally not drawn into the lungs but rather only into the mouth and nose—and the occasional alternate orifice, as when Native Americans administered tobacco enemas. (French police in Paris in the eighteenth century recommended reviving drowning victims by blowing tobacco smoke up the anus.) Recall also that smoke from cigars and pipes was (and is) rarely inhaled: smoke is taken only into the mouth, from where the nicotine passes through the lining of the oral cavity and thence into the bloodstream. Cigarette smoke from flue-cured tobacco, by contrast, can be inhaled easily into the lungs because the smoke is far less alkaline and therefore less harsh, less irritating. Cigarette smoke is more neutral, triggering none of the coughing mechanisms of alkaline pipe or cigar smoke.

Deep inhalation is largely the product of the flue-curing revolution of the nineteenth century, though the change did not occur overnight. Measured in terms of pounds of tobacco consumed, cigarettes in the United States did not surpass pipes and cigars until 1923. The First World War helped popularize cigarettes, but cigarettes were also cheaper and more easily lit (and kept burning) than either pipes or cigars and were sometimes even boosted as a "safer" form of smoking—because they were "milder." Cigarettes also didn't have the fat cat or fuddy-duddy image of the puffer on a stogie or a pipe. The stock market crash of 1929 put another dent in demand for fat cigars, to the cigarette's benefit. Cigarettes were also more like a snack than a meal and could often be consumed without taking a break from work, and in this sense were something like the fast food of the tobacco world.

Flue-curing made cigarettes inhalable—and far more deadly. Inhalation was not an easy habit to induce, however, and many smokers (even of cigarettes) as late as the 1930s and 1940s did not inhale. Cigarettes were often smoked like "little cigars"—without inhaling, in other words—and epidemiologists in the 1950s still sometimes asked on their survey forms, "Do you inhale?" The (plausible) theory had emerged that inhalation was a far more dangerous form of tobacco use: after all, if smoke doesn't enter your lungs you wouldn't seem to stand much chance of contracting lung cancer. Epidemiologists eventually stopped recording inhalation behavior since by the 1950s most smokers were inhaling, encouraged by the urgings of advertisers (see Figure 2). Scholars also found it hard to rely on smokers' own accounts of their behavior—and there was the complication that even noninhalers inhaled quite a bit of (their own) secondhand smoke. Gauging inhalation was therefore difficult, clouded by the proximity of secondhand smoke.

Why, though, was smoke from flue-cured tobacco so much easier to inhale? The answer has to do with the fact that flue-curing alters the basic chemistry of the leaf, increasing its natural sugar content. Green tobacco leaf starts off containing a great deal of starch, which converts into sugar in the initial "yellowing" stage of the curing process. This yellowing is achieved through the application of gentle heat, with high humidity. In later stages, however—typically four days into the curing process—the heat is cranked up to about 72°C, which deactivates the enzymes that would otherwise degrade or ferment the sugars in tobacco (as happens with other methods of curing). The high sugar content of flue-cured leaf yields a smoke that is less harsh, less alkaline, and therefore much more easily inhaled without stimulating coughing. Cigarettes made from flue-cured leaf are also more addictive than pipes or cigars, because the lungs are far more effective conduits of nicotine than the tissues lining the mouth. That is mainly because our lungs have an enormous internal surface area—about the size of a tennis court—offering lots of opportunities for nicotine absorption. This huge surface area also offers a fertile field for injury, which is why inhalers of smoke become vulnerable to emphysema, bronchitis, and cancer. Cancers typically begin as single mutant cells that multiply and spread, and with more cells exposed to carcinogenic tars the risk of any one turning traitorous grows proportionately.

This business of sugar in tobacco leaf is a fascinating one—and insufficiently appreciated outside the tobacco man's labs. Sugar and tobacco have a long and incestuous history, and as one leading insider put it in the 1940s, "Were it not for sugar, the American blended cigarette and with it the tobacco industry of the United States would not have achieved such tremendous development as it did in the first half of this century." The American-blend cigarette launched by Reynolds just prior to the First World War was in fact a candied-up contraption, in two different ways.

First of all, there is the already mentioned fact that flue-curing yields a high sugar content in the finished leaf, typically around 20 percent by weight or even higher. Leaves with such a high sugar content produce a milder, less alkaline, smoke as the sugars convert to acids when burned, neutralizing the bases generated with the combustion of leaf proteins, amino acids, and the nicotine alkaloid itself (an alkaloid is literally an "alkaline body"). The important contrast here is with the air-cured leaf used in plug or chewing tobacco, usually a variety known as "burley," which has very little sugar left after curing—only about 2 percent. Manufacturers of plug or chew therefore typically sweetened air-cured burley leaf—which was porous in a spongy sort of way—by soaking it in honey, sugar, or licorice. An added advantage was that sweeteners of this sort were cheaper, pound for pound, than unadulterated tobacco leaves. Virginia tobacco interests denounced this process, decrying the "perverted taste of the Yankees" who cared little for tobacco "but dearly loved sweets." So apart from the sugar produced (and preserved) by flue-curing, cigarette tobacco was further sugared up by adding sweeteners to burley leaf, which when combined with flue-cured came to be known as the "American blend."


R. J. Reynolds in 1913 changed the world by launching its Camel brand, the world's first "blended" cigarette. The marketing was a marvel, and mechanization certainly helped, but flue-curing chemistry was also key to the new cigarette's success. Cigarettes prior to this time had typically been made from unblended flue-cured Virginia (or Turkish) leaf; Camel's innovation was to combine the lower pH of flue-cured with the higher pH of sweet-flavored burley. The success of the enterprise in the United States was aided by the disruptions of the First World War, which limited access to Turkish (oriental) leaves and forced a turn to domestic varieties. In a nutshell: this new "American blend" had two distinct advantages over previous cigarettes. It was sweet and flavorful from its use of candied-up air-cured burley, and it was mild and inhalable by virtue of its incorporation of low pH flue-cured leaf.

Milder, more flavorful, and inhalable, the American blend would quickly take the world by storm. Cigarette production in North Carolina—the epicenter of this new combo (at Winston-Salem)—grew from 2 billion to 28 billion sticks per year over the course of the First World War. In the seven years after Camels were introduced, R. J. Reynolds went from making about 0.2 percent of the country's cigarettes to controlling roughly half the American trade. Flue-curing also conquered Europe, and with the same deadly consequences. German tobacco scientists by the 1930s were tracing the global lung cancer epidemic to the increasing use of inhalable cigarettes; and inhalability was being traced to the pH of the resultant tobacco smoke. German medical men recognized the significance of this novelty: the great Fritz Lickint, for example, noted the "decisive medical significance" of low pH cigarette smoke, commenting that "while most people are not able to inhale the smoke of tobaccos from the alkaline group (i.e., pipe and cigar tobaccos), they are able to do so with a large percentage of the acid group (i.e., cigarette tobacco)!" Low pH cigarette tobacco, with its nicotine in a milder, non-alkaline, form, "made inhalation possible." Lickint was also prescient enough, however, to suspect that pipe and cigar tobaccos were being made milder to emulate the inhalation made fashionable with cigarettes.

Flue-curing may well be the deadliest invention in the history of modern manufacturing. Gunpowder and nuclear weapons have killed far fewer people, as has all the world of iron. The creation of the cigarette has been compared to the invention of the hypodermic needle, but the comparison underplays a crucial difference. Syringes can be used or abused, but the cigarette kills when used as directed. An estimated 100 million people died from smoking in the twentieth century, and hundreds of millions more will die in the twenty-first if the epidemic is not curbed. The industry could easily have prevented many of these deaths—themajority of all lung cancers, for example—by making a cigarette that was difficult to inhale. (European black tobacco for many years had a higher smoke pH, and smokers were less in the habit of inhaling.) Inhalation was also encouraged by advertisements celebrating its sensuous pleasures. Deep inhalation by the 1930s was being given an aura of sexual gratification, with dreamy stars filling their lungs and sensuous smoke-play about the nose and mouth.

We'll return to advertising in a moment. But first some words on two other innovations crucial for the triumph of the cigarette.


Matches and Mechanization

The triumph of the cigarette over the cigar has been the triumph of machinery over handicraft. CURRENT OPINION, 1924

We tend to take it for granted, but it is not so easy to make a fire without matches or some kind of petrochemical lighter. Humans have been doing it for tens of thousands of years, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, but a great deal of skill is involved, including knowledge of what kinds of wood or stones must be selected (for rubbing or striking) and what kinds of powders can be used as tinder. Stone Age peoples struck flaked flints against pyrites, for example, allowing the spark to fall on fine dry moss or sawdust cut by termites or the dust of certain fungi, all of which required a certain amount of nature lore. Many of these same techniques were being used as late as the eighteenth century, when starting and keeping the home fires burning was a vital necessity throughout the world. In England, stories were told of homes where fires had been kept alive for more than a hundred years.

Chemical means of kindling fires have been around for centuries, though elaborate preparation was sometimes necessary, and techniques were not always reliable. China's invention of gunpowder in the ninth century made it possible to make a fire by impact, but this was never very practical. The British philosopher Robert Boyle, better known for his invention of the air pump, by 1689 had found that phosphorus rubbed against sulfur could cause ignition, but there was not yet any good means of controlling the combustion. Not until the nineteenth century were matches with a controlled phosphorus burn devised. Akey breakthrough took place in 1827 when John Walker, an English chemist and apothecary, affixed a mixture of antimony sulfide and potassium chlorate onto the end of a stick by means of certain gums and starches, which when rubbed against a suitable surface would catch fire. Walker never patented his "Congreves," as he called them(honoring the rocket recently invented), which were in fact the first practical friction matches. He was not much of a businessman, and it remained for a London druggist by the name of Samuel Jones to mass-produce Walker's invention, which, when rechristened Lucifers, became so popular that for many years all matches in much of the world were known by this name.

The world's first "Lucifers" were foul-smelling and not terribly safe. Accidental ignition was one big problem, but they were also poisonous to manufacture. In the 1830s and 1840s the white phosphorus commonly used caused a degenerative rotting of the mouth known as "phossy jaw" among the English women who labored in factories to make these luxuries. So searches were launched for safer means of fire making. A breakthrough came in 1844, when Gustaf Erik Pasch in Sweden patented a match using red instead of the more dangerous white or yellow forms of phosphorus. Crucial in his invention was the fact that "safety matches," as he called them, could be struck only on a specially prepared surface on the box, circumventing the danger of accidental ignition. Safety matches made lighting fires easier and safer and were essential to the rise of the cigarette. Fires could now be lit with speed and convenience, even by someone with little skill and while standing up—by military sentries, for example. Fire making no longer required concentration, or even much in the way of skill, and by the end of the century it would be rare for anyone in the urban parts of Europe or the Americas to know how to start a fire without matches.

Part of the attraction was that matches are easily produced en masse in factories. Match-making machines were invented in the 1860s, and by 1868, when the Vulcan AB Match Factory was founded in Tidaholm, Sweden, production was on the order of hundreds of thousands of sticks per day. So whereas a skilled worker in the 1830s could make only four thousand or five thousand per hour, by the 1870s match-making machines had increased this rate by more than an order of magnitude. Paper matchbooks were invented by Joshua Pusey in America in 1889, and by 1896 the Diamond Match Company (which bought the rights to his invention) was making more than 150,000 matchbooks a day. "Close cover before striking" was added to the front for safety and presumably legal reasons, and this eventually became one of the most widely printed phrases in the English language.

The twentieth century sees the proliferation of fire-making devices, notably the liquid-fuel metallic lighter, many early examples of which were crafted in the high style of Art Nouveau or the Arts and Crafts movement. Hundreds of different commercial versions were available by World War I, most of which catered to the nascent cigarette habit. A consolidation of sorts took place with the invention of mass-market lighters, the most popular of which was the Zippo, developed by George G. Blaisdell in Bradford, Pennsylvania, in 1932. Blaisdell improved on an Austrian design with a windproof wick, reducing the size to fit the palm of the hand, while also incorporating a hinge to allow a cigarette to be lit with only one hand. He also offered a lifetime guarantee, one of the first such offers for any consumer product. (The name came from Blaisdell's fondness for the zipper, invented in a nearby Pennsylvania town.) A paltry eighty-two Zippos were sold in the first month of production, but it wasn't long before the Bradford plant was cranking out eighty thousand per day. By the dawn of the new millennium more than 400 million had been sold worldwide. Match-making also continues apace, with Swedish Match alone (in the tiny town of Tidaholm) churning out 90 billion sticks per year.


Excerpted from Golden Holocaust by Robert N. Proctor. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Draws on previously confidential industry documents and Proctor's own experience as the first historian to testify in court about [industry] lies. What lies? How deep into the pleural linings did they go? All the way."—Harper's Magazine

"Lays out in head-shaking detail how a handful of companies painstakingly designed, produced, and mass-marketed the most lethal product on the planet."—Mother Jones

"[A] monumental and sobering indictment."—Nature

"Proctor documents a breadth and depth of the industry's duplicitous actions that is astounding."—Science (Aaas)

"A nearly 800-page book that begins as the Bible of the twentieth-century cigarette industry only to end as its millennial counterblaste."—Harper's

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