The story of how the current state of the tobacco industry came to be

Ben Fortson

Often, writing a newspaper column is like trying to stuff an extra-large quilt into a empty can of soup. There’s just too much material to cram in.

So at the outset of the second part of the story about tobacco in North Carolina, I apologize for the partially stuffed quilt (and my inadequate summaries). The story of our favorite herbaceous plant—surprisingly, a member of the boring potato family—is teeming with provocative and entertaining anecdotes, but owing to lack of space, I am forced to omit most of them.

Nonetheless, I shall try to tell it in the most intoxicatingly-abridged fashion I can muster.
Recalling our previous installment, I remind you that—despite our smoke-free, limited-advertising, health-conscious culture—the tobacco industry continues to thrive to the tune of $90.6 billion. I alluded to the fact that this unexpected development can, in large part, be attributed to a skewed versions of reality” (remember Nick and Ted) and North Carolina history.

Let’s probe the history lessons first.

Early American colonists found Native Americans smoking a large leafy plant they believed to possess a number of spiritual and psychological benefits. “Tobah”, as they called it, provided a heightened sense of awareness, a feeling of euphoria, a cooperative attitude and, according to some, a false sense of being more attractive.

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 1700s and became the main export for the young 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.

Although tobacco grew well-enough in North Carolina and Virginia, South Carolina’s substantial slave populations produced the lion’s share of the wealth. Unable to match the 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 lived 40 miles north of Burlington and tasked his slave Stephen with curing a barn full of tobacco. Having fallen asleep, 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 it grew best.

The next steps, in chronological order, were 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 (serving farmers in the east) and Winston-Salem (serving farmers in the west), and the appearance of entrepreneur Washington Duke and the Duke brothers.

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 four 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 144 cigarettes per minute. He crushed the competition practically overnight. 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.

By 1890, the wealthy brothers 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 50s, 80s and 90s, which led to million-dollar settlements and the appearance of a diminished tobacco industry.

But it does bring us back to my earlier point - the tobacco industry, somehow, has continued 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?

I’m suggesting, our history, particularly our tobacco history, has something to do with this. The general accrual of smoking generations is difficult to shake (it’s the same reason some folks still say “you’ins” and “chimley”, and the reason I can’t pronounce “Massachusetts”).

Nicotine—and mispronunciation—are in our DNA. Tobacco has been around a 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 N.C.). 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), so 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.

You'll find the answers in next week's final installment on this series.