‘Common Law’ Looks Back at the Battle Against Tobacco

Season 2, ‘When Law Changed the World,’ Debuts
Sarah Milov

UVA history professor Sarah Milov talks about her book, “The Cigarette: A Political History,” for the season debut of “Common Law.” Photo by Mary Wood

October 1, 2019

The first episode of the new season of “Common Law,” the podcast sponsored by the University of Virginia School of Law, is now available and tackles the legal and social activism that helped curb the smoking epidemic in the United States.

Dean Risa Goluboff and Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick ’06 return as hosts for season 2, which will examine “When Law Changed the World,” focusing on crossroads in legal history.

The deans interview Sarah Milov, an assistant professor of history at UVA who wrote the new book, “The Cigarette: A Political History.”

In 1964, when Surgeon General Luther Terry issued his landmark report about the dangers of smoking, more than 40 percent of the nation smoked, and commercial appeals that glamorized cigarettes were everywhere.

“Tobacco was the most-advertised product on TV at the time,” Milov says.

 A Political History"

But lawyers and activists promoted a new idea — nonsmokers’ rights — that pushed forward an agenda that the surgeon general and the health community had trouble advancing.

Milov points to the work of John F. Banzhaf III, a law professor at George Washington University who, early in his career, challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s fairness doctrine, asking that public health information be given equal time to cigarette advertising.

“So in a decision that took everybody by surprise, probably Banzhaf himself as well, the commission basically says, yeah, this is a subject of public importance,” Milov says.

In taking on Big Tobacco, Banzhaf emulated some of the tactics of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, whose activist supporters were dubbed “Nader’s Raiders” by the press. When Banzhaf became a professor, he encouraged his students — “Banzhaf’s Bandits” — to take on class projects that would be high-profile challenges to the status quo, such as smoking on airplanes.

Milov also looks at the broader efforts of individuals and groups organizing under the cause of nonsmokers’ rights, which built off the tactics of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement.

The deans then ponder the implications for modern social movements.

“Common Law” is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, YouTube, Spotify and other popular places you can listen to podcasts, including Amazon Alexa devices. This episode was recorded at the Virginia Quarterly Review and produced by Robert Armengol and Sydney Halleman.

You can follow the show on the website commonlawpodcast.com or Twitter at @CommonLawUVA.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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