Our show this week examines some of the new problems posed by an old foe: tobacco.
Look at the state of smoking in the United States today, and you might be inclined to think its glory days are over. Smoking bans are now the norm in restaurants, transit hubs, and hospitals, when thirty years ago, it might not have been surprising to see your doctor light up.
But think globally, and the numbers tell a different story — thanks to rising population, over 200 million more people are smoking today than were in 1980.
Those numbers are important, because so much of the tobacco industry’s success lies in overseas markets.
According to the CIA World Factbook, the world’s fastest growing country is Lebanon, where almost 50% of adult males smoke. In Indonesia and Russia, that percentage is even worse — together, they can claim almost 200 million regular smokers.
It may come as no surprise that Big Tobacco has moved the bulk of their business overseas. But how that shift was started may come as a surprise.
Sarah Milov, a fellow with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, studies the evolution of the tobacco industry. And unlike many of her colleagues, she sees the American tobacco farmer as a key player in tobacco’s foreign escapades.
In a paper for the Cambridge Journal of Policy History, Milov examines the case of Tobacco Associates, a tobacco farmers’ and exporters’ industry group that exploited the Marshall Plan to push American-style tobacco on new global markets.
Here’s what she writes:
Tobacco Associates promoted the general virtues of American flue-cured tobacco—’mildness’ and ‘inhalability,’ two traits that, in fact, make flue-cured tobacco the most deadly form of the leaf… [These] farmers and agribusinessmen were emphatically not selling manufactured American cigarettes abroad. And with hot demand in the American market, the domestic cigarette makers were not clamoring to sell their products overseas, either… so well before the domestic tobacco manufacturers took aim at foreign markets to make up for decreased domestic smoking rates and increased taxation, an important segment of the tobacco economy was already staking its claim to prosperity by looking abroad.
Milov’s paper is a incisive look at these early days of American tobacco’s adventurism overseas, revealing the level of collusion between the American government and tobacco farmers in pushing a harmful product on foreign markets.