America’s tobacco-growing communities are casualties in Washington’s war on cigarettes
For a community besieged by forces that menace the mainstay of its livelihood, the little city of Reidsville, N.C., displays surprisingly few outward signs or sounds of fury. Behind the mossy shade trees and magnolias on the tidy lawns of Main Street, whitewood mansions and glasswalled banks testify side by side to the city’s prosperous past and a sturdy faith in its future. But rosettes of green ribbon that bedeck neighborhood doors and windows reflect anxiety about the very survival of Reidsville’s main industry: making cigarettes. The ribbons represent tobacco plants now greening the farmlands of surrounding Rockingham County. Tobacco workers and supporters sold the rosettes, along with “Friends of tobacco” caps and decals, to help fund local and statewide campaigns to counter an antismoking crusade that is gaining momentum. The voices in the city of 13,000 are courteous, even in marshalling arguments against the enemy at the gates. But beyond Reidsville’s skirmish for survival, and especially on the front line of the war against cigarettes in Washington, the struggle is far from civil. For both the seven major American tobacco corporations and the thousands of antismoking organizations throughout the country, the war is literally, if in different terms, a lifeand-death struggle.
REPORT FROM NORTH CAROLINA
The companies are fighting, in aggressive newspaper ads and Capitol Hill corridors, to save their highly profitable business from a scourge of national proposals that would regulate the industry as a producer of an addictive drug, broaden public smoking bans and make federal cigarette taxes anywhere from four to 10 times steeper. Attacking tobacco in a speech two weeks ago to medical graduates, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner David Kessler, who cites evidence that cigarettes are made in a way that makes them more addictive, declared that “we cannot accept the inevitability of yet another generation becoming addicted to cigarettes.” Fired back James Johnston, chairman of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in Winston-Salem, N.C., denying the addiction charge in a full-page newspaper advertisement: “Please rest assured that there is no truth in these accusations.”
Amid the assaults from Washington, and in the face of lawsuits by the governments of Florida and Mississippi to recover state funds spent on sick smokers, one company is abandoning the struggle. Under a $1.3-billion April sale agreement between parent companies that is subject to U.S. antitrust approval, British-owned Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. of Louisville, Ky., will take over The American Tobacco Co., Reidsville’s chief employer (about 1,000 people) and taxpayer (almost $1.3 million a year). That deal, and the prospect that the new owner might shift the American Tobacco operations to a plant with spare capacity in Macon, Ga., is a source of more immediate anxiety in Reidsville than the wider war against cigarettes. Libby Cole, executive vicepresident of the local chamber of commerce, is co-ordinating a task force—named “Reidsville pride!”—intent on convincing the new owner that the city deserves to keep a factory important to its future as well as its past. Counting a predecessor absorbed by American Tobacco in 1911, the factory has been in Reidsville for more than 100 years, including a mid-century stretch when its Lucky Strike brand ruled the world (“Easy on your throat” and “LS/MFT—Lucky Strike means fine tobacco”).
Those easy, lucky days, though not the brand itself, are long gone. So potent is the uprising against tobacco that Mayor Clark Turner is one of many in Reidsville to recognize that “the cigarette industry may eventually disappear—perhaps in another 100 years, maybe less.” But in the meantime, he insists, “you cannot legislate morality or health.”
A growing number of commentators, including tobacco’s opponents, agree that the current fervor to reduce or abolish a hazardous habit by law may not only lead to violations of individual choice in other fields but, in the end, prove futile. Education and persuasion are more effective, Turner and others note. In the 30 years since U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry reported that cigarettes cause lung cancer, the proportion of Americans 18 or older who smoke cigarettes fell steadily from 43 per cent of the population to 25 per cent last year. But there are still about 45 million adult Americans who smoke. And although that total has declined by about 10 million in three decades, smoking’s persistence drives the current blitz to curb it.
In swift succession during the past 18 months, a series of Washington initiatives further demonized the smoking sin. Two weeks before President Bill Clinton took office in January, 1993, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report blaming secondhand smoke for 3,000 cancer deaths a year. That statement was widely influential. Two weeks after his inauguration, Clinton outlawed smoking in the White House—an example followed by similar bans in other branches of government and in the private sector. In September, Clinton proposed to help finance his health-care insurance plan by boosting the federal cigarette tax from the present 24 cents a pack to 99 cents, a sum that competing proposals in Congress would more than double.
Washington increased the pressure this year. Kessler announced in February that the FDA was considering regulating cigarettes as a drug, citing evidence that manufacturers increased cigarette nicotine to encourage addiction. In March, the U.S. labor department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proposed an outright ban on workplace smoking unless there were separately ventilated rooms for smokers, and the Pentagon forbade smoking in its worldwide military establishments. In April, there was a highly publicized clash between members of a congressional subcommittee and the chief executives of the big seven American tobacco companies. The corporate leaders simply denied that nicotine is addictive and that there is any proof that cigarettes, as often stated, cause more than 400,000 deaths a year. That testimony provoked ridicule in the media and anger among panel members, who went on to push through proposed legislation last month to prohibit smoking in public places. Leaked studies, sponsored in the past by the tobacco industry, cast doubt on the stand taken by the company executives.
But the April panel hearing also produced a backlash: telephone callers to a network that televised the session complained about rudeness on the part of the congressmen, who badgered the tobacco bosses. Analysts and commentators found some of the government studies and measures wanting. Critics said that statistics were manipulated in the EPA’s 1993 finding that secondhand smoke kills.
Some columnists asked: if smoking is to be curtailed and penalized, why not impose the same treatment on such health hazards as alcohol, guns and dangerous foods? They also expressed doubts whether any such restrictions would achieve their ultimate aim. The main result of the U.S. prohibition of alcohol from 1919 to 1933 was to foster crime. And in the 1890s, there were laws against smoking in public places in 26 of the then 44 states, none of which endured for long.
In a newly published study of the historical, social and cultural role of tobacco, Smoking is Sublime, Cornell University professor Richard Klein contends that “fanatical persecution usually reinforces the cult it aims to banish.” Klein, who confesses that he pursued his study as part of a successful personal effort to abandon cigarettes, takes his title from a conclusion that the sensation of risk and danger involved in smoking excites the “painful pleasure that arises from some intimation of eternity.” For that reason, warnings against smoking only enhance its thrill. Klein concludes that “if there is any chance that society will ever renounce tobacco, it will not be because of censorship, which will only foster its use.”
In Reidsville, all such arguments against the antismoking crusade are heard, if not in Klein’s terms. And in one sense, the city is a casebook on how unrestricted access is no encouragement to smoke. Not surprisingly, there are no restrictions on smoking in Reidsville, but it seems relatively rare. In the First National Bank of Reidsville, for one, there are generous ashtrays everywhere, but no evidence that anyone is using them. “You won’t believe this,” says Mayor Turner, puffing on the lightest cigarette available, “but Reidsville has become a very health-conscious town.” He says that he is alone as a smoker among all of his friends.
And although Reidsville is keen to keep the industry that made the city prosperous, all is not gloom. In Tuck’s Shoe Repair, Anthony Adams says that if the factory shuts down, it would be a heavy blow to the city. But then he brightens, and adds with a grin: “But not for me. If people can’t afford to buy new shoes, they’ll have to come here to get their old ones repaired.” And as First National’s president, Willis Apple, says: ‘We’re not ready to roll up the sidewalks.” The city is actively preparing for a day, sooner or later, when the cigarette factory may shut down. Apple runs through a lengthy list of new companies attracted to the city, the latest among them Techno-Coils Inc., a maker of automobile starters from Mandeville, Que., which promises to employ up to 120 people. But the banker is quick to note, as are workers at American Tobacco, that the new firms in town do not offer pay scales nearly as high as the unionized tobacco factory’s range of about $26 to $35 an hour. And the loss of American Tobacco’s taxes—almost one-quarter of the city’s budget—would be devastating.
Rockingham County likewise faces hard choices as the tobacco market shrinks under the impact of the antismoking campaign. The farms around Reidsville are small, the average about 40 acres, and production costs are rising. Growing anything but tobacco is costly: an acre of soybeans fetches only about one-tenth the return of tobacco. Danny Jones, 49, says that the old family farm will no longer support him, along with a brother and a nephew, so he has a full-time job in town. William Bray, 67, says that it is no longer worth his while planting his tiny farm in suburban Reidsville, where he feeds 20 head of beef cattle. Lawrence McCollum, 58 and the father of four daughters, is growing tobacco on 50 acres that have been in his family for almost 200 years, “but I don’t see much of a future for my kids in tobacco.” For the people of Reidsville and Rockingham, and for others in North Carolina, the number 1 state in the industry, the future means change. Four centuries after English colonizers of Roanoke Island discovered the profitable plant on the coast of what is now North Carolina, tobacco seems truly doomed in its native land. □
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