It looks harmless enough – white, 8cm (3in) long and about the width of a child’s finger – but the cigarette is vilified like no other product. Who invented it and how much responsibility does he bear for the countless deaths it has caused?
US surgeon Alton Ochsner recalled that when he was a medical student in 1919 his class was summoned to observe an autopsy of a lung cancer victim. At that time, the disease was so rare it was thought unlikely the students would ever get another chance.
But by the year 2000, it was estimated that 1.1 million people were dying annually from the disease, with about 85% of those cases stemming from a single cause – tobacco.
“The cigarette is the deadliest artefact in the history of human civilisation,” says Robert Proctor of Stanford University. “It killed about 100 million people in the 20th Century.”
Jordan Goodman, the author of Tobacco in History, says that as a historian he is careful about pointing the finger at individuals, “but in the history of tobacco I feel much more confident saying that James Buchanan Duke – otherwise known as Buck Duke – was responsible for the 20th Century phenomenon known as the cigarette.”
Not only did Duke help create the modern cigarette, he also pioneered the marketing and distribution systems that have led to its success on every continent.
In 1880, at the age of 24, Duke entered what was then a niche within the tobacco business – ready-rolled cigarettes. A small team in Durham, North Carolina, hand-rolled the Duke of Durham cigarettes, twisting the ends to seal them.
Two years later Duke saw an opportunity. He began working with a young mechanic called James Bonsack, who said he could mechanise cigarette manufacturing. Duke was convinced that people would want to smoke these neatly-rolled, perfectly symmetrical machine-made cigarettes.
Bonsack’s machine revolutionised the cigarette industry.
“It’s essentially a cigarette of infinite length, cut into the appropriate lengths by whirling shears,” says Robert Proctor. The open ends meant it has to be “juiced-up with chemical additives”. They added glycerine, sugar and molasses, and chemicals to prevent it drying out.
But keeping cigarettes moist was not the only challenge that Bonsack’s contraption presented to Duke. While his factory girls typically rolled about 200 cigarettes in a shift, the new machine produced 120,000 cigarettes a day, about a fifth of US consumption at the time.
“The problem was he produced more cigarettes than he could sell,” says Goodman. “He had to work out how to capture this market.”
The answer was to be found in advertising and marketing. Duke sponsored races, gave his cigarettes out for free at beauty contests and placed ads in the new “glossies” – the first magazines. He also recognised that the inclusion of collectable cigarette cards was as important as getting the product right. In 1889 alone, he spent $800,000 on marketing (about $25m in today’s money).
Bonsack retained the patent to his machine, but as thanks for Duke’s support in developing it, he offered him a 30% discount on the lease.
This competitive advantage – coupled with vigorous promotion – was key to Duke’s early success. As he had suspected, people liked mechanised cigarettes. They were modern-looking and more hygienic – one campaign emphasised this point over cigars, which were manufactured using human hands and saliva.
But although cigarette smoking in the US quadrupled in the 15 years to 1900, it remained a niche market, with most tobacco being chewed or smoked through pipes and cigars.
Duke – a cigar smoker himself – saw the potential for cigarettes to be used in places closed to cigars and pipes, such as drawing rooms and restaurants. The ease with which they could be lit and – unlike pipes – remain lit, also suited them to coffee breaks in modern city life.
“The cigarette was really used in a different way,” says Proctor. “And it was milder – and this is one of the great ironies, that cigarettes were widely thought to be safer than cigars, because they are just ‘little cigars’, right?”
We now know that cigarettes are far more addictive than cigars. The fact that the smoke is inhaled – which it is not traditional for cigars – also makes them more dangerous. But a correlation with lung cancer was not made until the 1930s and the causal link was not established until 1957 in the UK and 1964 in the USA.
Cigarettes were in fact promoted as beneficial for health. They were listed in pharmaceutical encyclopaedias until 1906 and prescribed by doctors for coughs, colds and tuberculosis (a disease which the World Health Organization now links with tobacco).
There was an anti-cigarette movement in the early 1900s, but it was more concerned with morality than health. A rise in smoking among women and children fed into a wider concern about the moral decline of society. Cigarettes were prohibited in 16 different US states between 1890 and 1927.
Duke’s gaze shifted overseas. In 1902 he formed British American Tobacco with his transatlantic rival, Imperial Tobacco. The packaging and marketing would be tweaked for different consumers but the cigarettes would remain largely the same. More than a decade before the creation of the Model T Ford, Duke had a universal product.
“To him every cigarette was the same,” says Goodman. “All of the globalisation that we are now familiar with through McDonald’s and Starbucks – all of that was preceded by Duke and the cigarette.”
The global reach of cigarettes is still extending today. Although smoking in wealthy parts of the world is in decline, cigarette demand in developing countries is increasing by 3.4% a year, leading to an overall growth in cigarette consumption.
The WHO warns that unless preventative measures are taken, 100 million people will die of tobacco-related diseases over the next 30 years – more than from Aids, tuberculosis, car accidents and suicide combined.
But can we blame Buck Duke for any of that? After all, no-one is forced to take up smoking, even if they find it difficult to give up once they have started.
In a recent essay for the journal Tobacco Control, Robert Proctor argues that many people in the tobacco industry all share some responsibility. “We have to realise that adverts can be carcinogens, along with convenience stores and pharmacies that sell cigarettes. The executives who work for cigarette companies cause cancer, as do the artists who design cigarette packs and the PR and advertising firms that manage such accounts,” he says.
Successful lawsuits that have been brought against “big tobacco” have tended to argue that tobacco companies knew about the detrimental effects of their products, but did nothing about it. But Buck Duke, who died in 1925, did not.
“I wouldn’t want to blame him for cigarette consumption,” says his biographer Bob Durden, who is keen to point out Duke’s positive character traits. “He was very hard-working. He loved his work.”
Those who still find something unsavoury about Duke may wish to consider his good deeds. He gave more than $100m to Trinity College in Durham, North Carolina, which was renamed Duke University in 1924 (in honour of James Buchanan Duke and his father, Washington Duke, another benefactor).
But if it weren’t for Buck Duke, would Americans still be chewing tobacco today? Would modern sports bars have spittoons by the door?
Goodman believes that the world was inevitably heading towards mechanised cigarette production. Bonsack’s machine wasn’t the only prototype, and if Duke hadn’t seized the opportunity another businessman would have.
“He was both a hero and a villain I suppose. Buck Duke is a hero in terms of his understanding of the market, his understanding of human psychology, his understanding of pricing, his understanding of advertising. He’s not villainous in that sense,” says Goodman.
Yet however great Duke’s achievements as an architect of mass-production and globalisation, his legend will continue to be eclipsed by his controversial creation.
“He made the world smoke cigarettes,” says Goodman. “And it’s the cigarette which has been the problem of the 20th Century.”