By Stephen Harris
February 26, 2014
It’s hard now to picture an American society pre-1964 when tobacco burned freely and rivaled soft drinks in popularity and consumption.
Now and then I’ll catch on the internet or on an old CD old TV cigarette commercials unedited and included with old black-and-white shows from that fairy tale-like time. The commercials pour it on with words like “great taste,” “smooth,” “mild” and “flavor” as if they were pitching candy.
There are scenes of happy young people sharing a pack of cigarettes, and there are glowing testimonials from actors and even from doctors about how great is the advertised brand.
Think of modern beer commercials, substitute cigarettes for the beer, and you get the idea. Tobacco commercials are banned today.
A lot of the tobacco came from right here in North Carolina, the onetime capital of tobacco growing and production (sorry, Kentucky). Many out in the country here in the hometown farmed their families’ lands back then, and the primary crop they farmed was tobacco.
Old, two-story, wooden tobacco barns with tin roofs dotted the edges of rural farm fields. Most of those old barns are gone now, torn down or collapsed with disuse.
However, I read recently with some amusement about efforts to preserve old tobacco barns for historical preservation. You can even get grant money to fix them up.
Grandpa Harris, who grew tobacco and other crops on the farm that had been in his family for at least four generations, “always had a chaw of tobacco in his mouth,” Dad once said.
Grandpa probably got his tobacco from a plug, which were leaves pressed together. By the time I came along chewing tobacco came shredded and in a pouch or pressed into little square cakes.
Dad, by contrast, smoked cigarettes, an invention that came to the fore in the 20th Century. Less messy than chewing tobacco and without the spittle and the required spit cup (often an empty tin can or soft-drink bottle).
But as a kid I thought tobacco smoke suffocating and stinky, so I avoided cigarettes. Neither did Mom use tobacco, either cigarettes or snuff - finely ground tobacco placed inside the cheek but not chewed. Mom’s mother dipped, as they called it, snuff as frequently as grandpa chewed.
I never learned why Mom didn’t follow the tobacco crowd of her day. She was in the minority. I’m glad she didn’t follow the crowd.
Tobacco rode high in America until a U.S. surgeon general report in 1964 broke the news that tobacco contained poisons that can cause cancer. The report caused little stir during the ‘60s, and on into the early ‘70s they still were allowing, for instance, teenagers at my high school to smoke during breaks. They called the school smoking area with its bare concrete pad and empty trash drum the smoke hole.
But public health advocates kept up the agitation and began chipping away at the old tobacco-using culture. More and more federal health warnings followed, then came higher and higher taxes, and then more and more restrictions on public smoking. Finally a big lawsuit settlement in 1998 extorted, er, took hundreds of billions from the severely wounded tobacco companies.
The change in America’s tobacco habit has been monumental, though gradual. Tobacco use has fallen to among just 18 percent of Americans, according to the “Journal of the American Medical Association.”
The campaign against tobacco has been so thorough and so successful that the acting U.S. surgeon general last month proclaimed the beginning of the end of tobacco in the United States.
The Associated Press described Dr. Boris Lushniak at a press conference as “unusually animated” and at one point nearly yelling. Sounded like a hard-shell preacher to me.
“We believe we have the public health tools to get us to the zero level,” Lushnisk proclaimed, according to the AP.
Alcohol once fell out of favor in this country. Unlike tobacco, alcohol became banned for a time under Prohibition.
But alcohol made a comeback following Prohibition repeal in 1933, and over the decades it has slipped into the niche tobacco once occupied.
Can tobacco make a similar comeback? It’s unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
Take the case of marijuana. While tobacco is being hounded to extinction, pot suddenly is being promoted in a number of quarters. Intensely. And that makes absolutely no sense in light of how much more dangerous marijuana is.
So I drive by old tobacco fields around home now planted with corn or soybeans or hay or whatever and I wonder, just wonder. Could these fields someday be planted again with a tall green weed, albeit of a skinner variety?
No, I can’t picture it. I pray it never comes to that. The last thing this country needs is more impairment, more stoners.
But then again there was a time when folks here could not imagine a bar in Elkin or beer in stores in Jonesville, either.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.