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Public relations director Merwin Wren, inspired by the irony that the Nobel Peace Prize's founder made his fortune manufacturing explosives used in rifles, schemes to promote the elderly owner of Valiant Tobacco Company, Hiram C. Grayson, as a great humanitarian in the tradition of Alfred Nobel. To accomplish this, Wren convinces the company's board of directors to offer $25,000,000 to any town that can stop smoking "cold turkey" for thirty days, certain that none will ever claim the prize. In Eagle Rock, Iowa, where the closing of an airbase has caused economic depression, Rev. Clayton Brooks hopes his church will re-assign him to the wealthy community of Dearborn, Michigan. The vainly handsome Brooks is popular with everyone except his meek wife Natalie, who stoically submits to his constant criticism and his accusations that she subconsciously sabotages his ambitions. Brooks preaches to his congregation that God has plans for their town and when he learns about the prize, decides that Valiant's offer is the "purpose" God intended for them. With the approval of the town council, the dynamic preacher leads a campaign to persuade the townspeople to pledge to quit smoking for one month. After ninety-eight percent of the population signs the pledge, Valiant's directors get uneasy, but Wren assures them that people cannot possibly remain smoke-free for long. In Eagle Rock, of the remaining two percent of holdouts, the most challenging is Edgar Stopworth, a wealthy alcoholic, whom Brooks, a former college boxing champion, bullies into leaving town for the month. The chain smoking Dr. Proctor is coerced into giving up his three packs a day habit when the local banker threatens to foreclose on the doctor's hospital unless he signs the pledge. Six hours before the deadline for signing the pledge, thirty members of the anti-Communist "Christopher Mott Society" led by Amos Bush have stubbornly refused to sign up, although none of them smoke. To obtain their cooperation, they are appointed the task of policing and reporting violations, and are promised yellow and red caps and armbands. When the town clock strikes midnight, smokers take their last puffs and Stopworth drives away, while the Motts set up blockades at town boundaries to search incoming cars for tobacco products. Each person suffers withdrawal in his own way, by becoming short-tempered, overeating or biting nails, and neighbors rush to intervene whenever the weak-willed threaten to give up. Intrigued by the events, newcomers move in, among them, a prostitute masseuse and a pseudo-Buddhist. Wren drives into Eagle Rock with a carload of cigarettes, but is stopped at the blockade by addled octogenarian Mott member Odie Perman, who thinks he is a Communist and holds him at gunpoint. By the eleventh day, Eagle Rock has the nation's sympathy and a radio program doctor suggests that married couples participate in the "act of physical love" as a substitute for smoking. Hearing this, Brooks reaches for Natalie, who resigns herself to his increasingly frequent attention toward her. After the directors point out that there is no safeguard to determine if anyone cheats, members of the "Sons of the Confederacy," a pseudo-military group, are sent to watch out for Valiant's interests. As tension increases, Wren roams the streets with his cigarette lighter, which is shaped like a gun, in search of people with a cigarette needing a light. Relieved to see townspeople become increasingly miserable and even violent, Wren reports hopefully to the board that the town's failure is imminent. During a council meeting in which officials argue over how to spend the prize money, Brooks receives an emergency summons to the hospital's operating room. Rushed there by police car, and followed by the whole council, Brooks finds Proctor trying to light up, insisting that he needs a cigarette before undertaking an operation. After slugging the nurse and threatening the others with his scalpel, Proctor has everyone at a standoff, when doors open and the beloved newscaster Walter Chronic enters the room and everyone stops what they are doing. To exploit the many tourists arriving daily, the citizens turn their houses into museums and set up food and souvenir stands selling "Cold Turkey" dolls that say, "I love you" and "Smoking gives you cancer," and masks featuring the faces of town officials. Nationally known companies pay large sums to put up billboards, and a movie maker proposes to film in Eagle Rock. On the pretense of wanting to "help," Col. Glen Galloway, a Pentagon liaison, arrives to find a way for the president to share the good publicity. Noting how Eagle Rock commands media attention and public sympathy, Valiant and the rest of the tobacco industry fears for its future. At the town square in the midst of the hubbub, Brooks sees Eagle Rock's young people protesting that their elders should "make sense, not money," and wonders if their generation has lost their sense of civic duty. When Brooks agrees to let a television crew into his church, his sermon is interrupted by the television director, who gives him stage directions. Later, disturbed by the town's carnival atmosphere, Brooks has doubts about what he has created. When his supervisor Bishop Cross visits, Brooks apologizes for the town's greed and avarice, but the bishop praises its "vitality" and "unity of purpose." Referring to the latest edition of Time magazine featuring Brooks on the cover, Cross says that in the "God business" nothing is bigger and predicts that Brooks will be assigned to the Dearborn church. That evening, Natalie suggests that Eagle Rock is "gaining the world, but losing its soul." Offended that she quoted scripture, Brooks accuses her of turning his "very own words" against him. Citing Time as proof, he brags that he is now in league with the Pope, Winston Churchill, Jonas Salk and the president, all of whom have appeared on the magazine's cover. Chagrinned, Natalie fantasizes about screaming from her rooftop. On the last day of the month, the major television networks prepare to broadcast the presentation of the prize check, as the Sons of the Confederacy continue to watch for smokers. Galloway offers to fly the council to Washington, D.C. for the ceremony so that they can be filmed with the president on a split-screen, but he is ignored. At eleven p.m., as the town gathers at the bandstand and Valiant's board members wait unhappily in a limousine to present the check, a man hired by Wren moves the town clock's hands forward while Wren pushes through the crowd with his gun-shaped lighter. When the clock strikes midnight ten minutes early, cigarettes drop from a helicopter into the crowd. Brooks persuades the people to wait before lighting up, but Proctor goes missing and Brooks orders the crowd to find and stop him from smoking. Wren searches for Proctor, too, but accidentally drops his lighter just as Odie spots him. Calling Wren a Communist, she points her gun at him, which he mistakes for his lighter. He grabs it and, while trying to light Proctor's cigarette with it, shoots Proctor. To honor Proctor's "last request" for a cigarette, Wren pleads with the crowd for a lighter. Stopworth, who has just returned and who also owns a gun-shaped lighter, finds Odie's gun and, making the same mistake as Wren, unintentionally shoots the ad man with it. Odie, who is still chasing Communists, grabs the gun and aims at Wren, but shoots Brooks instead. At midnight, everyone's attention is focussed on the chance to smoke, and consequently the dying men sprawled on the road behind them go unnoticed. After a motorcade arrives with the president, a Goodyear blimp floating above the crowd announces that Eagle Rock is to be the site of a new missile plant. Sometime later, four towers of the factory spew black smoke into the air above Eagle Rock.