Monday, July 20, 2009

Turning the page past Big Tobacco

Apologies that I have not been posting too regularly of late. As it happens, the problem is mostly that there has been too much going on in the news for me to stay on top of pointing out relevant information. I'm going to try to dig myself out, bit by little bit, starting now:

The world is a busy place these days, and so it is perhaps easy to lose sight of how radical a change it is that Congress has passed, and the President signed, a law giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products. You may recall that about 10 years ago, Dr. David Kessler (now a bestselling author, but at the time the FDA Commisioner) proposed that the FDA already had the necessary authority to do so -- and his claim was regarded as a profound threat to the tobacco industry. His account of how and why he made the argument is to be found in a backlist item from PublicAffairs, A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry (9781586481216, 2002). The New York Times titled its review "U.S. vs. Joe Camel" (3/25/01), identifying the paramount symbol both of the cigarette industry's marketing practices, and of Dr. Kessler's rather cleverly pitched battle. "Suspecting he would be stymied by higher-ups at the Department of Health and Human Services," David Kusnet wrote in his review, "Kessler established his own channels to the White House, and as Clinton prepared for his 1996 re-election campaign, Kessler shrewdly framed an approach that focused on the companies' efforts to market cigarettes to teenagers. At a news conference with Clinton, Kessler announced new regulations designed to discourage teenage smoking, including bans on the tobacco companies' running advertisements with cartoon figures like Joe Camel, sponsoring sports events like the Nascar races or selling cigarettes in vending machines."

I always thought that some of this strategy was unfair. Leaving aside for the moment (but only for the moment) the question of whether or not tobacco companies purposely manipulated nicotine levels in order to ensure that customers developed addictions, it always seemed to me that in campaigns like those involving the now infamous Joe Camel, the tobacco industry was simply following long established American business practices in trying to develop and maintain new markets. The storm of outrage that eventually developed seemed to me to be making a scapegoat of the tobacco industry for the standard methods of American capitalism. But then, as any reader of Rene Girard will tell you, the scapegoat is a necessary element of any social order.

In any case, Dr. Kessler failed -- ultimately, the Supreme Court decided, in a 5-4 decision, that the FDA did not in fact have the regulatory authority Dr. Kessler had claimed. But Congress and President Obama have given Dr. Kessler the final word, passing legislation only weeks ago that assigns such power to the agency the doctor once headed. So it is worth acknowledging his work, I think -- as that original Times review said:

If anything approaching this proposal ever comes to pass, historians will give a great deal of the credit to the indefatigable David Kessler, who took on an influential but irresponsible industry. One of his offhand observations should be memorized by careerists both inside and outside the Beltway: 'The challenge in Washington, I began to realize, was not getting a job, but figuring out what to do with it.'

Still, though, the best way to appreciate his fight, and our long, twisted, multifaceted relationship with the tobacco industry, is to be found in Allan M. Brandt's Bancroft Prize-winning history, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America (Basic, 9780465070480). In its pages we return, in detail, to the nicotine question. It is true that the story has progressed since publication in 2007; still, this is the best way to understand how deeply woven tobacco has been in American culture, history, and politics -- and to appreciate how significant a change it is that our government has now claimed strict regulatory power. It's a big book to be sure, but a wise and fantastically written one. It is most definitely worth another look.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lance Armstrong, defying the odds...again

As the Tour de France returns to the mountains, with Lance Armstrong still well-positioned at third, only 8 seconds behind the leader, John Wilcockson's biography is doing some climbing of its own:

#9 on the MPBA bestseller list

#15 on the SCIBA bestseller list

#35 on the New York Times bestseller list

Keep in mind: Mr. Armstong is returning to racing at the advanced age of 37 years, and after 3 years away from the sport (and from a broken clavicle!). Winning the Tour for seven consecutive years (after recovering from cancer) already qualified him as "the world's greatest champion," but, my oh my, wouldn't a title this year be a phenomenal capstone?

Lance: The Making of the World's Greatest Champion

by John Wilcockson

Da Capo, 9780306815874

cloth, $26.00