Until the early 1980s, my high school had a smoking lounge. It was a medium-sized room off the lobby with some beat-up furniture where students could hang out, smoking their Marlboros and their clove cigarettes. There was even a king and queen of the smoking lounge, pictured in the yearbook alongside the prom’s royal court.
Today such an accommodation of smoking is unimaginable. Indeed, in most states, it would be illegal. In the past forty years, the United States transformed from a society where the cigarette represented a combination of sophistication and rebellion to one in which smokers are benighted addicts, suffering for their own moral failures. Sarah Milov’s breathtaking The Cigarette: A Political History explains how this happened. In telling this story, her narrative weaves together legal, political, and economic history in a manner that calls for a revaluation of the dimensions of twentieth-century liberalism and the nature of its decline. The book is a compelling exercise in historical synecdoche: its subject is the political history of the cigarette, but its story is that of the twentieth-century American state.
Frankly, one could teach a course on twentieth-century legal history using this book as a textbook. It speaks to a broad range of subjects central to the interests of legal historians: the role of law in constituting capitalism; the interaction of law, gender, and race in the construction of social movements; the simultaneously emancipatory and constraining potential of framing policy preferences as rights; the profound role of the administrative state in structuring politics and policy; the rise of public interest litigation; the importance of understanding the legal history of agriculture, a field sorely neglected by legal historians.