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Tobacco has a long and evolving legacy in North Carolina. People defend the golden leaf for the economic power it brings the state. Others criticize it for the serious health problem smoking tobacco can cause.
North Carolina's Dependence on Tobacco traces tobacco's history from its colonial roots to its blossoming as an economic engine for the state’s growth. Tobacco farmer Billy Carter from Moore County and others whose livelihood depends on tobacco share their own mixed feelings about selling the crop, needing the income it brings but understanding the health problems it causes. Staff from the Tobacco Farm Life Museum and the Duke Homestead explain tobacco's heritage in North Carolina, noting that Durham and Winston-Salem might not be the successful metro areas they are without the economic benefits of tobacco.
Though tobacco's heritage is a source of pride for the state, that history began to change in the 1960s after the Surgeon General's report on the dangers of smoking. Tobacco was once a pillar of North Carolina's economy. "That's not true today," Lt. Governor Beverly Perdue says in the documentary.
North Carolina's Dependence on Tobacco introduces viewers to smokers like Jerry and Della who share their powerlessness to quit smoking, even though they have received medical attention for smoking-related illnesses. Doctors, public health workers and health activists voice their concerns about how tobacco use increases not only illness rates but health care costs as well. Health care professionals estimate that North Carolina spends billions of dollars to treat people with smoking-related illnesses and that these costs outweigh any gain that tobacco sales reap for the state.
Because of the continuing dilemma between supporting North Carolina farmers and caring for the health of citizens, policies affecting tobacco spark heated debates. Retired state representative Lyons Gray of Winston-Salem comments that North Carolina senators and representatives have been shy about spending money on smoking prevention or secession efforts or raising cigarette taxes because of tobacco's place in the state's economy.
"People were almost afraid to talk anything against tobacco," says Gray. "There was a very strong reluctance among colleagues here in the General Assembly to address health concerns that may have been raised by critics of the tobacco industry. And when you saw bills that would take tobacco money to fix health concerns there was a strong reluctance—almost a very strong resistance to do it in the early days."
Other legislators voice concerns about spending money on smoking prevention programs because they may imply to tobacco farmers that the state no longer supports their enterprise. "Tobacco pays the bills; that's the bottom line," remarks Senator John Kerr of Goldsboro. "We have lost the textile industry, the furniture industry, and I think they want to run the tobacco industry out and I don’t know what’s going to be left. Where are we going to generate the tax base to pay for all that we need to do in human services?"
Billy Carter says the question about raising the cigarette tax ultimately comes down to loyalty. "It's difficult to argue the economics of that to the farmer...we could raise our tax here to help our state some, and it's not going to hurt us nearly as much as California jacking it up and New York, large consumption states. But you have to...be loyal to the economy of this state."
North Carolina's Dependence on Tobacco suggests reasons for hope. The national lawsuit against major tobacco corporations spurred four state funds that support tobacco farmers attempting to diversify and a program on smoking prevention for youth. Public health professionals call for the state to invest in new industries. Future trends may eventually make the decisions about what role tobacco will play in North Carolina's economy and policy in the next ten years.