Tobacco’s dominance went up in smoke

By Hal Tarleton
Posted 1/17/20

Recent news stories about a deadly vaping illness have reminded me of how much tobacco intertwined with my newspaper career.

I edited newspapers in Wilson and Danville, Virginia, cities dependent …

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Tobacco’s dominance went up in smoke

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Recent news stories about a deadly vaping illness have reminded me of how much tobacco intertwined with my newspaper career.

I edited newspapers in Wilson and Danville, Virginia, cities dependent upon tobacco growers, tobacco warehouses and tobacco factories. Both cities proclaimed their superiority as tobacco markets. The dominant radio station in Danville, where I worked 1977-79, was WBTM, “World’s Best Tobacco Market.” The dominant radio station in Wilson when I arrived in January 1980 was WGTM, “World’s Greatest Tobacco Market.”

Tobacco prices during the market season were front-page news in both cities. The market’s opening was a Big Event drawing crowds of buyers, growers, politicians and others. President Jimmy Carter attended the market opening in 1978.

The two editors who preceded me in Wilson were chain smokers. Newspaper staff members were allowed to smoke at their desks. “Thank you for not smoking” signs were not found in the newspaper office or in many other businesses in town.

The 1964 surgeon general’s scathing report on cigarette smoking and its link to lung cancer marked the beginning of the slow erosion of tobacco empires, although tobacco and smokers held on for decades. Congress fought an extended battle over price supports and Depression-era tobacco allotments (essentially a license to grow and sell tobacco, which turned into a valuable asset for shrewd investors in farmland).

To counter government studies linking tobacco to various diseases, the tobacco industry created the Tobacco Institute, which financed “studies” that cast doubt on the tobacco-disease links and promoted smoking. The Tobacco Institute was eliminated in the Master Settlement Agreement that settled lawsuits brought by 46 states against tobacco companies in 1998.

Eventually, messages about the health hazards of smoking began to take hold. State, federal and local taxes on cigarettes soared, discouraging (somewhat) sales of cigarettes. But the addictive power of nicotine in tobacco made it nearly impossible for smokers to quit. Non-smokers became aware that “secondhand smoke” was affecting their health, too.

The percentage of adults who smoked peaked in 1954 at 45% and is now around 18%. That drop resulted from efforts to curtail tobacco use by limits on advertising, laws prohibiting tobacco sales to minors and a long-delayed public recognition that cigarette smoking is not healthy, sexy or sophisticated.

For more years than I had realized, I tolerated cigarette smoke at public events, in my office, in classrooms, in stores and other people’s offices, in restaurants (“smoking or non-smoking?”) and waiting rooms. Friends with asthma or allergies complained about smokers invading their space, but it didn’t seem to bother me until fairly recently. Like many other people, I’ve developed a sensitivity to cigarette odors.

I can remember when heavy smokers would come into my office at the newspaper, and the smoky odor would linger for a long spell after the visitor had left.

The impact of smoking goes beyond the 440,000 Americans who die from smoking-related illnesses every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The litter of cigarette papers and filters, the ashes (and yucky ashtrays), the accidental fires and the cigarette smoke odor that permeates clothing, upholstery and vehicles are also part of tobacco’s history.

Tobacco made many people filthy rich, from the farmers who knew that tobacco had a greater profit margin than any other crop they could grow to the tobacco corporations that inundated television, radio and magazines with costly advertising to promote their products.

Most Americans, predominantly non-smokers, will not mourn the decline of the tobacco industry even as companies aim to hook new generations on vaping products that send a heated mist into their lungs and emit a cloud that looks a lot like cigarette smoke. Lung damage, leading to some deaths, have been linked to this new substitute for cigarettes.

Knowing tobacco’s history, Americans should be more skeptical about this new, widely promoted habit that clogs their lungs.

Hal Tarleton is a former editor of The Wilson Daily Times. Contact him at haltarleton@myglnc.com.