How Tobacco Conquered the World

Mmm… delicious.

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.

You can read the full thing here. And if you’re interested in the new difficulties facing regulators who want to respond to these rising numbers, listen to this week’s show, below.


2 Comments on “How Tobacco Conquered the World”

  1. Jan

    “over 200 million more people are smoking today than were in 1980” may be true in absolute numbers, but what’s the PERCENTAGE of people smoking today compared to 1980?

    I mean, did the percentage of smokers go up 66.3% — the percentage of population increase from 1980 to 2016? If less than 66%, then overall smoking is down.

    I’m totally against smoking; but I’m also FOR complete analysis and reporting of numbers. All numbers.

    1. jwl8f Post author

      You’re right Jan, smoking rates have gone down in many parts of the world and are down globally. However, this page, from the World Health Organization, mentions an increase in the prevalence of smoking in the Middle East and Africa.

      Because the decline in smoking rates is slower than the rate of population increase, there are more people buying cigarettes today than in 1980. In other words, the market for cigarettes is still growing. That is not to say that progress has not been made — but many of these gains are concentrated in areas experiencing slow or stagnant population growth, resulting in lesser gains in terms of raw numbers of smokers.