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

By Peter Benson | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
Enemies of Tobacco

AT ONE WILSON EXIT there is the financially strapped Tobacco Farm Life Museum, established by the R. J. Reynolds Corporation in the 1980s to espouse a positive view of tobacco as a heritage. Motorists learn interesting facts about old-fashioned production techniques of the Depression-era tenant world that have now been swept away by technological change. They browse among the handicrafts, lots of wooden farm equipment, and black-and-white photographs. For the tobacco industry this kind of cultural investment was strategic. The museum frames tobacco agriculture as an innocent pastime available to motorists and local growers alike. In favor of a wholly positive rather than complexly realistic view of tobacco, the museum does not describe the health risks associated with tobacco use. The public education that it provides avoids a conversation about where tobacco agriculture can legitimately and feasibly go, given the harmfulness of the plant.

The museum was one part of a public relations campaign launched by the tobacco industry in the Reagan era to portray growers, and motivate growers to reckon themselves, as a group of people whose culture and tradition have been disrespected, the victims of undue hardship caused by what Jesse Helms, a Republican senator from North Carolina, called “enemies of tobacco,” namely, antismoking advocates and the political supporters of public health. This kind of fear-based public relations reflected the more general conservative politics of the day. A cultural politics of victimhood, which played so strategically on meanings of race, geography, and the family, helped foment the support of growers at the very same moment that tobacco companies were aggressively globalizing their operations and steadily moving to foreign tobacco leaf sources. At the museum there are no diagrams of how neoliberal trade policies, facilitating this market shift, demanded new levels of capitalization and debt financing in North Carolina tobacco farm households, drove their dependence on low-wage seasonal and migrant labor, and put the majority of these operations out of business. Amid the rise of the national antitobacco movement and pervasive sentimentality surrounding the tacitly white and middle-class nuclear family, in a simplified story of plighted heritage, tobacco companies found a handy cultural resource for deflecting attention from international, industrial restructuring and fomenting a valuable political alliance with the grower population.

-96-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Foreword ix
  • Preface xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I- The Tobacco Industry, Public Health, and Agrarian Change 35
  • Chapter 1- Most Admired Company 37
  • Chapter 2- The Jungle 63
  • Chapter 3- Enemies of Tobacco 96
  • Part II- Innocence and Blame in American Society 133
  • Chapter 4- Good, Clean Tobacco 135
  • Chapter 5- El Campo 166
  • Chapter 6- Sorriness 210
  • Conclusion Reflections on the Tobacco Industry (and American Exceptionalism) 258
  • Bibliography 275
  • Index 307
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