Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry


Tobacco Capitalism tells the story of the people who live and work on U. S. tobacco farms at a time when the global tobacco industry is undergoing profound changes. Against the backdrop of the antitobacco movement, the globalization and industrialization of agriculture, and intense debates over immigration, Peter Benson draws on years of field research to examine the moral and financial struggles of growers, the difficult conditions that affect Mexican migrant workers, and the complex politics of citizenship and economic decline in communities dependent on this most harmful commodity.

Benson tracks the development of tobacco farming since the plantation slavery period and the formation of a powerful tobacco industry presence in North Carolina. In recent decades, tobacco companies that sent farms into crisis by aggressively switching to cheaper foreign leaf have coached growers to blame the state, public health, and aggrieved racial minorities for financial hardship and feelings of vilification. Economic globalization has exacerbated social and racial tensions in North Carolina, but the corporations that benefit have rarely been considered a key cause of harm and instability, and have now adopted social-responsibility platforms to elide liability for smoking disease. Parsing the nuances of history, power, and politics in rural America, Benson explores the cultural and ethical ambiguities of tobacco farming and offers concrete recommendations for the tobacco-control movement in the United States and worldwide.


In the sany loam of Wilson County, North Carolina, tobacco farming remains a dominant economic and cultural trade. Peter Benson, a gifted ethnographer and social analyst, worked the tobacco fields side by side with undocumented migrants and African Americans who labor on these family farms, eager to understand both the meaning of this work and its context in a complex and highly contentious global market for tobacco products. There was a time—in the not too distant past— when growing tobacco was equated with national pride and public identity, a critical link between the early nation and its agrarian ideals, economy, and culture. Tobacco growing has never been easy work, but in those heady days of the colonies and the new republic it would have been impossible to anticipate the predicament in which tobacco farmers today find themselves, deeply implicated in powerful historical forces that often feel to be no more controllable than the rains of spring, so crucial to the crop.

Today, as Benson so clearly shows us, tobacco farmers see themselves as besieged, under attack from all quarters, diligently working to defend their farms, their product, and their deeply held moral values. In this remarkable book, Benson enters their world committed to understanding precisely how they come to terms with the difficult economic and moral questions they face. He treats these farmers with great respect, but at the same time, he is able to see their words and their actions in a dense global context. How do they justify their role (often exploiting vulnerable workers) in producing a crop that leads inevitably to such extensive disease and death?

There is a disturbing message here about how deep cultural processes and social dynamics allow people to rationalize what they do. Benson finds a common “script” carefully authored and promoted by the tobacco industry and spoken confidently and fluently by the farmers it so aggressively exploits. According to this logic, the diseases associated with the tobacco plants farmers grow and harvest are explicitly the responsibility of smokers themselves who have “decided” to take this risk. And besides, they argue, there are far more serious problems than those associated with this historic legal product. These aggrieved farmers utilize a set of arguments to defend their identities against the government and public health bureaucrats whom they now view as threatening their livelihood . . .

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