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The Tobacco State

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

--as published in the Asheville Citizen Times in three installments



This tobacco story is true (I wish it weren’t, but at least I’ve alerted you).


Although the following intro may seem initially unrelated, hang with me here. The tobacco industry, in its efforts to secure full-time smokers, may seem supremely evil (a proposition I'll explore later), but I suspect there's another, more deceptive agent at play. This may take some explaining...


 

A couple of weeks ago, after driving two hours south of Asheville, I arrived at a Saturday sporting event on a large college campus (whose mascot is not a chicken).


After settling into my comfy aluminum plank under the blazing sun, I made the mistake of introducing myself to the skinny young man sitting to my left. He proceeded to offer not only his name and identity (an undergraduate of the home team), but the reason he barely missed-out on making the roster of the pre-season #1 team in the nation (which was getting ready to play a football game a half-mile below us).


After his lengthy explanation—which seemed to be coming from a scrawny, unfootball-ish frame—he then tried to clarify why he had chosen to attend this fine university (something about how friendly the students and fans were). Although beginning to feel somewhat nervous about his I’ll-be-here-talking-to-you-for-the-next-three-hours vibe, I could appreciate his genuine enthusiasm for unloading on a total stranger, and I tried to listen attentively—with one eye on the game, which had now started.


His tale eventually ended and we both decided to give our full attention to football. Unfortunately, this only lasted about ten-minutes, when rather abruptly, my worst fan-fears were realized.


My new twenty year old "I-coulda-been-a-contender" friend (we’ll call him Ted), began shouting mocking taunts at the opposing teams fans, many of whom were perched on matching aluminum planks within easy earshot. Not only did this seem uncharacteristic of Ted—I thought he was only going to talk to me—but the comments coming out of his scrawny mouth were less than amiable… and given his pre-game pep talk, certainly baffling.


Being unable to hide and wanting to communicate to all the other strangers in the stadium, “Hey, I have no idea who this guy is!”, I nonchalantly tried to slide toward my daughter, who had instinctively tried to slide toward her mother. Although this seemed to provide some level of disconnect, unfortunately I could not disconnect from the abusive verbiage flying past my left ear and into the crowd below.


As the game progressed—despite the beatdown of an opposing team slightly better than Charles D. Owen Middle School—Ted’s ostentations grew. With the heat bearing down, the crowd glaring ever-so-much-more menacingly at Ted (and me), and the tiny football game going-on below becoming less and less relevant, I was on the brink of grabbing Ted by the shoulders and politely screaming, “Your claims seem somewhat hollow!”… or something like that.


At this moment of personal meltdown, Ted paused from his brash taunts, sat down, inhaled deeply and quite innocently, blew a large cloud of vape smoke into my face—which immediately took my mind, and this column, in a different direction.


 

Thank You For Smoking is a dark, satirical comedy about the efforts of the tobacco industry to encourage smoking. Following its spin-master lobbyist, Nick Taylor, on his smooth-talking journey to schools, television stations and congressional hearings, we quickly learn that Nick is an excellent storyteller (liar). Protecting some of tobacco’s biggest yarns—cigarettes aren’t addictive, smoking enhances your self-image, attracts the opposite sex, improves your health, keeps you slender—Nick learns to avoid facing facts by questioning the logic of his detractors, and advocating for personal choice.


Eventually, Nick is faced with his hypocritical, deceiving career, only to be reminded by his son that “somebody has to defend the corporations that nobody wants to defend.” Realizing his gift for defending hollow claims—like my friend Ted—he eventually leaves the tobacco industry and starts a private firm, lobbying for fast-food, oil and bio-hazard industries (remember, dark comedy).


Although the film fails to mention North Carolina’s deeply-rooted tobacco economy, Nick often finds himself meeting with the big-wigs in Winston-Salem (home to R.J. Reynolds; producers of Newports, Camels, and Lucky Strikes). Surrounded by a cast of rich, self-indulgent, I-could-care-less characters, Nick finally comes to terms with his talent, and his colleagues, by rationalizing, “everyone’s got a mortgage to pay.”


 

I still haven’t figured out how my college football friend is paying his mortgage—maybe he’s renting—but his bold oblivion, combined with his illegal, stadium-puffing exhibition, ironically cleared everything up for me.


A few days before the Clemson football game, I had happened upon Thank You For Smoking on Netflix. Enjoying its absurdly ridiculous and poignant plot, and pondering its implications for several days, it finally dawned on me at halftime: Ted was Nick. Nick was Ted. And reality—acknowledging the facts that apply to everyone else in the universe—were irrelevant to both.


In the movie, what ultimately makes Nick’s character so intriguing is his ability to unreservedly ignore the truth; the reality that cigarettes kill people. By creating his own narrative and sticking with it, he convinces a large portion of the populace that smoking cigarettes is a perfectly safe and sexy, albeit life-threatening, behavior.


Likewise, willfully ignorant, Ted has convinced himself that, 1) He deserves to play football at the collegiate level; 2) All Clemson fans, including himself, are nice, friendly folks; and 3) The "No Smoking Signs" posted all over the stadium, don't apply to him.


Not only were these incredibly interesting revelations, Nick and Ted’s worldview highlighted a compelling fact about North Carolina's tobacco industry (what this column is actually about): Despite a smoke-free, limited-advertising, health conscious culture—where tobacco's cancerous implications have met scientific reality, and where big tobacco's culpability and deceptive marketing have been exposed—tobacco is thriving. Thriving to the tune of $90.6 billion.


How is this possible?!


I'm convinced it’s all about how we view reality—thanks imaginary-character Nick and Clemson-student Ted—and about North Carolina history.


 


Early American colonists found Native Americans smoking a large leafy plant they called, “Tobah”. Claiming it offered a number of spiritual and psychological benefits—a heightened sense of awareness, a feeling of euphoria, a cooperative attitude and, according to some, a feeling of being more attractive—Native Americans gladly shared it with their intrusive neighbors.

Sir Walter Raleigh—of whom Raleigh, North Carolina was eventually named—introduced the first tobacco to Europe where it immediately became a wild, albeit noxious, success. Referred to in the American colonies as “Brown Gold”, tobacco was in high demand in the 1700’s and became the main export for the young Carolina Colony. Over the next 150-years, tobacco would play a leading role in the economy and culture of North Carolina... but it was a slave named Stephen that actually put North Carolina on the lung-cancer map.


In the early 1800's, Virginia and South Carolina’s substantial slave populations produced the lion’s share of the tobacco wealth. Unable to match the questionable free-labor economy, the extensive trade routes and the higher-quality soils of its neighboring states, North Carolina tobacco farmers plodded along on their small farms. Until 1839 and Stephen.


Abisha Slade, living forty-miles north of Burlington, North Carolina, had tasked his slave Stephen with curing a barn full of tobacco. Having fallen asleep at the job, Stephen awoke and rekindled the fire, raising the temperature a tad too high. The intense heat unintentionally cured the tobacco quickly, transforming the brown leaves into a bright golden yellow. Offering a distinctive taste, Stephens “bright-leaf” tobacco soon became the nicotine rave… and quite unexpectedly, created a demand for tobacco grown in North Carolina (where bright-leaf tobacco grew best).


North Carolina quickly ascended the tobacco-greatness-ladder, the events leading to its rise occurring in rapid succession: the Civil War (where smoking became a national pastime); the invention of the cigarette (allowing local growers to process and sell their own tobacco); the development of tobacco markets in Durham and Winston-Salem; and the appearance of entrepreneur Washington Duke and the Duke brothers (not The Dukes of Hazard, but his sons, The Dukes of Death).


In 1881, small tobacco farmer Washington Duke had his first semi-brilliant, kind-of-a-no-brainer breakthrough—he started selling pre-rolled cigarettes (although this sounds a bit odd, cigarettes were originally sold disassembled in 2-parts, the tobacco and the paper). Whilst Dukes agile employees could roll 4-cigarettes per-minute, his next idea would solidify his company, and North Carolina, as the cigarette capital of the world. In 1884, Duke purchased exclusive rights to the newly invented Bonsack Automated Hand-Roller. His new machine could deftly roll-out 144-cigarettes per minute—and practically overnight, he crushed the competition.


With the brilliant use of intensive, hipster marketing (thank you Duke brothers), the new cigarette industry would charge butt-first into the trash receptacles, sidewalks and roadsides of American history.

In 1890, the wealthy brothers (who had inherited the business) would propose a successful merger with their remaining competitors, creating the American Tobacco Company, establishing the largest and most lucrative tobacco company in the world. By 1893, North Carolina had become the epicenter of the tobacco industry and remains so today, producing over twice as much tobacco as any other state.


 

Suffice it to say, this is a simplified history of “how to kill several million people in your home state”—and it omits the reconfiguration of tobacco companies in the 20th century, as well as the tumultuous lawsuits of the 50’s, 80’s and 90’s, which led to million-dollar settlements and the appearance of a diminished tobacco industry. But it does bring us back to my earlier point - despite all realities, and all odds, the tobacco industry continues to thrive (if you need a hard, cold fact, how about this one: In 2016, Americans spent more on cigarettes than they did on soda’s and alcohol, combined).


“What the heck?!”, you say. "How is this possible?"


To reiterate, I believe our history, particularly our tobacco history, has played a major role in this mind-boggling development.


The general accrual of smoking generations is difficult to shake (it’s the same reason some folks still say "dawg” and “chimley”, and the reason I can’t pronounce “Massachusetts”). Nicotine—and mispronunciation—are in our DNA. Tobacco has been around a long, long, long time (to be exact, before we Europeans got here), and quite a few folks still like the addictive buzz (as evidenced outside most any restaurant or public event in North Carolina). This heritage is not going away any time soon.


No one needs to remind you that tobacco kills people (I’ll remind you anyway; on average, 14,200 N.C. citizens die annually from tobacco use). Should we be concerned about our thriving, on-going historic industry and it’s health costs? (over 4-billion annually).


It all depends on your version of reality.


 

It’s no secret that “big tobacco” of the 20th century tried to con Americans into believing that nicotine was non-addictive; denied the health risks; funded their own “research” to produce doubt in scientific findings; promoted “light cigarettes” as less harmful (they all cause cancer, lung disease, heart attacks and premature death); dismissed claims that second-hand smoke was hazardous; and spent billions to make cigarettes appear fashionable, seductive and profoundly fun. Wisely, they targeted the next generation—teenagers—and had they been allowed to continue their ploy, it’s almost certain Ironman and Captain America would’ve been dragging on a Marlboro at the iMax.


It’s also no secret that many of these spin-masters were North Carolinians—the Ted and Nicks of Durham and Winston-Salem, who mislead everyone and their grandmother, encouraging smokers to ignore warnings, and by extension, fostering the death of millions.


What drove the tobacco industry to such lethal measures? Obscenely obvious, the monstrous cash flow (annually, in the billions); and not so obvious, the dazzling ability to ignore facts (smoking putrefies your lungs). Fixated on exponential profits, and inclined towards alternative realities, North Carolina’s tobacco industry spun its way into the lungs and lawsuits of American smokers.


Fast-forward to 2018. Despite irrefutable medical evidence, hundreds of lawsuits, substantial warning labels, mandated cigarette-denouncing newspaper ads, limitations on advertising, public smoking restrictions, rising consumer costs (a $3.73 pack of cigarettes in 2001, costs $6.42 in 2018), billion-dollar tobacco fines and mushrooming health-costs… the U.S. tobacco industry saw over $90-billion in sales last year. Beyond the historical narrative (“our family has smoked for generations”), what’s going on here?


Lets take a stab at the answer. Here's the top-6 most commonly recognized reasons for, "Why I smoke":

  1. Some folks believe the statistics... and are simply choosing to reduce their lifespan for a nerve-calming, seductive diversion (“I’ll die early, but at least I’ll be sedated”).

  2. According to Steve McQueen, some relish the idea of being viewed as a rebel (a high-price to pay for dubious notoriety).

  3. There’s the “poor argument” (over 29% of those below the poverty-level smoke).

  4. The “uneducated argument” (41% of high-school dropouts smoke).

  5. The “cool argument” (teenagers vying for grown-up-ness) and,

  6. The “stupid argument” (“I believe people are just stupid”, suggests President Donald Trump).

Out-trumping them all (sorry Donald), I’m suggesting there is an overriding, underlying, death-defying Ted-and-Nick-kind-of-logic that pervades our culture, and, quite naturally, aligns well with a big tobacco worldview—where risk is negligible, or downright non-existent.

Rose, age 25 and smoking five to ten cigarettes a day, recently lost her cigarette-smoking grandfather to lung cancer. On why she continues to smoke, Rose offered this appraisement: [It’s a habit I enjoy], “…and I guess it's just one of those things where you just assume, it will never happen to you."


Rose’s version of reality incorporates a betting-against-all-odds belief that cancer, lung disease, a premature heart attack, or diminished-health are not-in-the-cards for her future (statistically, as she ages and if she continues smoking, her reality approaches nil).


According to novelist Philip Dick, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” For Rose, this means believing she’ll never succumb to the “dark side” of tobacco, while in the meantime, she slowly moves ever-closer to becoming one of the 480,000 annual fatalities of cigarette smoke (or, at best, develops congested lungs, high blood pressure, a hefty cough, bad breath and yellow teeth).


Today, the tobacco industry spends about $12-million a day (yes, one-million every two hours) to keep smokers in a blue fog, and to recruit sons and daughters, brothers and sisters in point-of-sale retail environments (convenience stores, supermarkets and pharmacies). Big tobacco continues to preach a sexy, defiant, never-happen-to-me reality; one that smokers seem eager to adopt… and a reality nicotine readily endorses.


For the few smokers who doubt that reality, but still love a smoke “…vapes are a great alternative”, offers Caleb, a 16-year-old who sneaks a 4” vape pen into his high school, inhaling in the hallways between classes.


E-cigarettes—vapes or Juuls—are the new rage for Generation Z, and are extolled as a healthier, electronically-cool alternative. Little does Caleb know, vapes can be just as heatlh-hazard-addictive, and are welcomed by the tobacco industry as a new tool to conscript more tobacco users. Even if Caleb understood these facts, it’s likely to be a passing concern—coolness weighs heavy on the teenage-reality-scale.


To the surprise of many—lawmakers included—North Carolina remains in the clutches of a very lucrative, alternative reality.


And with the Ingles, Walmarts and Walgreens of the world saying, “if you’re buying, we’re selling”—don’t count on the other reality catching up to us any time soon.


--Ben Fortson


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