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Ashes to Ashes: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris.

As the evidence accumulates that tobacco-company executives have been lying for decades about the manipulation of nicotine in cigarettes, author Richard Kluger appears in timely fashion with perhaps the most thoroughly researched book ever about the history of the deadly product.

Kluger specializes in thick books, one per decade. The first, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality, appeared in 1975. Length: more than 800 pages - a nonfiction masterpiece.

The second, The Paper: The Life and Death of the New York Herald Tribune, appeared in 1986. Length: also more than 800 pages.

Kluger's latest is about the tobacco industry. Length: You guessed it.

This book is not an expose. Not until page 760 does Kluger say that he has come to believe cigarette-company executives lied about the health charges made against their product.

Kluger explains that his most difficult task "was to try to suspend moral judgment as long as possible in sifting through this immense and untidy collection of materials in order to craft a coherent social narrative about an industry that was, after all, a thriving enterprise well before a conclusive scientific consensus on the hazards of its products was achieved. My intent throughout has been to bring an unpremeditated approach to a subject that has historically generated a good deal more heat than light."

Kluger's nine-page foreword, "A Quick Drag," however, is brilliantly provocative. "In a case of supreme irony, not to say perversity, the more evidence accumulated by science on the ravaging effects of tobacco, the more lucrative the business has become, and the wider the margin of profit," he writes. "Why should this be? Did mankind simply become putty in the hands of the master manipulators who ran the cigarette business? ... Or have we been convinced by these merchants' unyielding insistence that peddling poison in the form of tobacco is no vice if (a) it is freely picked by its users and (b) its dangers have not yet been conclusively, to the last logarithm of human intellect, proven?"

Kluger raises prickly questions, too, about the motives of governments that refuse to make smoking illegal. "Can all these national governments be justly accused of callous indifference to the well-being of their peoples, or might it be argued instead that, in Darwinian terms, economic survival has gained priority over mere physical fitness, to the chagrin of public-health advocates?"

In the closing paragraph to his foreword, he asks: Are cigarette merchants "businessmen basically like any other, selling a product judged to be highly hazardous long after its usefulness to millions was well-established, and are now sorely abused by `health fascists' and moralizing busybodies, or are they moral lepers preying on the ignorant, the miserable, the emotionally vulnerable, and constitutionally susceptible?"

Great come-on. Trouble is, Kluger doesn't follow through. As soon as the main part of the book starts, he becomes more an encyclopedist than a narrator.

Every one of Kluger's chapters is divided into a half-dozen or more set pieces, written more compellingly than most encyclopedia entries, to be sure, but otherwise quite similar. The pieces do not always connect well, linked only by chronology in many instances. This does not lend itself to seamless storytelling.

In a typical chapter, Kluger mingles set pieces about that decade's scientific research on the health hazards of smoking, the economic fortunes of competing tobacco companies, the latest tactics of industry lobbyists, the hand-wringing compromises made within government agencies, inadequate media coverage of life-and-death matters, and the passing of folks who played significant roles in tobacco's history.

This approach sacrifices depth for breadth. For example, there is one slice of the book about which I can immodestly pronounce myself an expert, having devoted six months of the last year to investigating the story of nicotine use in cigarettes that was aired by the ABC news magazine, Day One. Kluger's version is superficial. And because of its superficiality, it is misleading.

As a reference book, Ashes to Ashes is a success. But as a book to be consumed for pleasure, it will probably be considered heavy going by readers with less stamina than Kluger.

Steve Weinberg writes long books, but not as long as Kluger's, from his home in Columbia, Missouri. His most recent is "The Reporter's Handbook: An Investigator's Guide to Documents and Techniques," published by St. Martin's Press.
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Author:Weinberg, Steve
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1996
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