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Dirty Hands

Resolved: The U.S. Should Stop Growing Tobacco

It kills millions, it has no productive use, and even its farmers see the end coming. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Linwood Scott III climbs two-story tobacco cropping machines with real agility and apparently no thought to falling. The sixth-generation tobacco farmer is proud of his machinery, upgraded 20 years ago and therefore relatively new. He delights in every tool and accoutrement of the cropping, curing, and baling process: every trailer, every sawed-off school bus that pulls those trailers, every conveyor belt, every one of his 200 small curing barns.

Scott, in his early fifties, is from Lucama, North Carolina. He’s never smoked. His father told him tobacco was for cropping, not smoking, and he abides by that dictum. When I visited in December, he led me on a tour of his operation. “Tobacco has been growing on this farm way back before me,” he told me. “I walk the same fields that my great-granddad and my granddad and my dad walked.” He spoke as if he could see the families stretching out behind him and over the distant horizon of his very flat fields on the coastal plain of North Carolina.

But he’s stressed, he explained, worried about tobacco’s “razor-thin” margin in a way that few before him had to be. A bad or failed crop could end the operation. When there’s a hurricane near the coast, he stays up all night, as if obsessing about the weather could change it. He recounted the innumerable ways his 1,500 acres of tobacco, spread over several counties around Wilson, the historic center of the flue-cured tobacco industry in North Carolina, might lose money if he’s not careful. (Flue-cured tobacco is exposed in an enclosed barn to a week or more of forced, heated air, which preserves the leaves and gives them that familiar golden color.) Scott has contracts with several tobacco companies, each of which wants its tobacco grown and prepared just so: light or dark, thick or thin, whatever its part of the market wants. Tobacco companies set the prices, and if you don’t have what they want, Scott said, they “don’t want it at any price.” Fertilizer, fuel, and labor costs increase every year, while prices hardly change.

If tobacco built the farm over generations, it’s no longer a dependable source of the kind of income his grandfather earned decades ago, much less its best cash crop. Scott plants most of his acreage in sweet potatoes now. And he has begun to entertain the notion that his farm, one of the biggest tobacco growers in the biggest tobacco state, may soon get out of tobacco altogether.

Scott’s son-in-law is the “numbers guy,” he explained. “I’ve told him that before I’m dead and gone he’s probably going to have to tell me to stop.” Scott is not exactly distraught about this, he said, because in one sense, it’s just business: “It would be hard.... But I’m not so emotionally attached to it that I’m not going to make a good business decision.”

Scott’s feelings aside, there’s no getting around the fact that in the United States, tobacco as we know it—which was here at the beginning of European colonization, which subsidized those Colonies, which built much of North Carolina, which transformed the fields of advertising and marketing, which once provided good incomes for many thousands of farmers, which killed at least 100 million people who smoked it in the twentieth century—will likely die long before Scott does, without any help from him or his son-in-law.

But is that fast enough?

In 1980, North Carolina’s Democratic Governor Jim Hunt famously declared, “In this state, tobacco is still king. And we intend to keep it king.” This is how we talk about tobacco here in North Carolina: with metaphors and symbols that describe something unconquerable, essential, even gifted by God; grown by modest, hardworking people whose toils funded the Colonies, saved the American Revolution, and built states, North Carolina included. We talk about the colleges it bankrolled, such as Duke University; how it paid for the educations of farmers’ children; how it fueled so many towns around rural North Carolina; and how the money tobacco generates is still key to the survival of our economy. Tobacco built kingdoms and titans of industry, the story goes; tobacco is freedom, and in case you didn’t realize that, here in Durham sits a 250-pound replica of the Liberty Bell constructed of pressed tobacco leaves, a twin of the bell given by the R.J. Reynolds Company to the Smithsonian in 1976 on the occasion of our nation’s two-hundredth birthday. The founder of the American Tobacco Company, James “Buck” Duke, who at the turn of the century created a union-busting, price-fixing monopoly that spread cigarettes over the entire globe—that man is interred in the chapel at Duke University, in a marble sarcophagus crafted in his image, draped in emperor’s robes.

The Duke Homestead State Historic Site and Tobacco Museum in Durham, North Carolina, houses a replica of the Liberty Bell made of pressed tobacco leaves.

Nowhere in that chapel does it mention that Duke’s company purposely spread an addiction that captured billions of people.

Some parts of the tobacco prosperity story, it should be said, are basically true. Tobacco farmers are highly skilled and hardworking, their work has supported generations of their families, and their children have gone to college on the money they pulled off tobacco plants. Real towns and communities sprang up around farming and selling leaf. Small-scale, part-time tobacco farming that filled savings accounts or paid debts—that was real, but is no longer.

The more baroque fantasy, the tale of the miracle crop that founded a nation and ensured our freedom and financed our entry into the modern world? That mix of truth, myth, and exaggeration has been used by tobacco companies in their opposition to everything from cigarette taxes to medical research to smoking regulations. It’ll hurt farmers and small businesses is a familiar refrain, and it’s been one of the tobacco industry’s great weapons over the years, even as the interests of tobacco companies and tobacco growers have diverged.

But the myth has never been aimed at farmers, who aren’t particularly susceptible to it anyway: It doesn’t help them pay for seed and fertilizer, it doesn’t help them pay workers, it doesn’t help them heat curing barns, it doesn’t help them get a good price from the companies that have locked them into contracts. The prosperity story has always been a device for propping up the cigarette industry. For them, farmers were propaganda tools as much as suppliers. Conflating these two—tobacco farming and cigarettes—was one of the cigarette industry’s most impressive sleights of hand, a trick it has employed worldwide, with remarkable consistency.

This past fall, to take one example, two North Carolina congressmen joined with tobacco industry lobbyists to pressure the Biden administration into delaying implementation of the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on menthol cigarettes. “Our focus is on the impact the ban will have on working families and farmers in North Carolina,” wrote Democratic Representative Don Davis and Republican Representative David Rouzer, who threatened that homeownership and college educations would be imperiled if the ban were allowed to take effect. “The tobacco industry brought generations of North Carolinians out of poverty,” the pair piously declared, and “built cities and towns across the state.” As of this writing, the Biden administration had still not implemented the ban.

Another example: The International Tobacco Growers Association, set up and run by cigarette manufacturers, lobbied in Indonesia in 2010 against a ban on additives in tobacco manufacturing, claiming that it would harm the livelihood of farmers. Tobacco use is fast on the increase in Indonesia and much of the Pacific Rim, unlike the rest of the world. Later, the Tobacco Growers’ Association of Brazil, another industry group, presented 250,000 signatures on a petition from tobacco farmers, workers, and community members, opposing a similar ban on additives.

This shackling of farmers to cigarette companies by way of the tobacco prosperity story would be merely interesting if it weren’t so effective, disingenuous, and deadly.

It’s startling to realize how unpopular cigarettes were at the turn of the twentieth century, and to what lengths the American Tobacco Company went not only to advertise the product, but to convince people that smoking cigarettes was something they wanted to do, something good Americans did.

From the late nineteenth century through most of the twentieth, U.S. tobacco companies worked very hard to create new smokers and develop a robust market here and abroad. Marketing and addiction are powerful partners: Even after a 27.2 percent global decline among men and a nearly 38 percent decline among women since 1990, around 1.3 billion smokers remain worldwide. Much of this is due to the success of J.B. Hutson, who formed the industry group Tobacco Associates in 1947, the organization most responsible for expanding markets for U.S. tobacco overseas and for battling cigarette taxes. Through a remarkable variety of benign-sounding institutes and committees funded by Big Tobacco, Hutson promoted false research into the health effects of tobacco and ushered the industry into the production of propaganda films.

Produced in Durham, North Carolina, a late-1940s-era magazine ad for Chesterfield cigarettes features famous baseball players.

Here in the United States, in 1943, Lucky Strike put a very young Frank Sinatra on a stage with North Carolina’s own big band leader, Kay Kyser, for a television performance in a very weird infomercial that simulated a tobacco auction and repeatedly touted the “romance” of tobacco farming. (Fifty-five years later, Sinatra was buried with a Zippo lighter and a pack of his favorite Camels, a rival brand.) It’s perhaps a testament to the power of tobacco advertising that even an unflattering portrayal of its sliminess, the TV show Mad Men, coincided with a 43 percent increase in sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes. In the first episode, the head of Lucky Strike puts the romance succinctly: “We’re selling America here. The Indians gave it to us, for shit’s sake.” To which Don Draper, the show’s hero, responds with a nonsense slogan, “It’s Toasted!”—one of many nonsense slogans in the history of tobacco. In 1974, the Tobacco Institute put out a documentary, Leaf, which peddled the idea that tobacco was a “gift of the gods,” that growing it was an emotional, personal matter of heritage, and that it had inspired a “whole new art form,” namely the carving of pipes and wooden tobacco-store Indians.

It’s been a long time since tobacco was the economic king here. It’s true that if North Carolina seceded tomorrow, it would instantly become the eighth-largest tobacco-producing country in the world. But in 2021 tobacco growing accounted for just 3 percent of all farming income in North Carolina, a sector that was itself just 2.6 percent of the state’s gross income from all industries. Tobacco manufacturing jobs—de-stemming leaves, making cigarettes—accounted for only 1.6 percent of all manufacturing jobs in the state.

This state has moved on from tobacco, as the rest of the nation has. We just have a hard time admitting it. People still write poems about tobacco. (“Every night I pray in my own humble way/For those who farm the golden weed,” goes one such verse, recited on YouTube by its author, Parker Phillips.) The tobacco prosperity story, which insists that tobacco farming is essential in North Carolina, and any wound or insult to the broader industry of cigarette manufacturing and sales would do untold damage to the tobacco states, is alive and well, even if the facts point to another conclusion. Tobacco is not even close to being king here, and yet that fact doesn’t stop tobacco companies from using the myth to their advantage.

In March 2003, a North Carolina tobacco farmer named Dwight Watson drove his tractor all the way north to Washington, D.C., parked it in the middle of the pond in an area called Constitution Gardens, and began a two-day standoff, during which he threatened to blow himself up and made references to another standoff at Ruby Ridge. The American flag above his cab flew upside down. He was in distress.

He told reporters that he’d been moved to embark on his protest by the impending failure of his tobacco farm in the town of Whitakers—the result of unfairly low prices and the imminent end of the federal price support system. “If this is the way America will be run, to hell with it,” he told The Washington Post. “They can blow my ass out of the water. I’m ready to go to heaven.”

Fifteen years later, the six biggest tobacco companies in the world reported profits of $55 billion. One of those companies, Imperial Brands, disclosed a profit margin in 2018 of 46 percent on global revenue. Tobacco companies in 2019 spent more than eight times as much on U.S. marketing and advertising ($8.02 billion) as they did on buying U.S.-grown tobacco ($940 million). Eighty percent of that marketing and advertising budget went to price discounts to retailers and in-store marketing and advertising campaigns. In this sense, Big Tobacco is less in the tobacco-buying business than the recruit-more-smokers business. Keeping tobacco as cheap as possible is imperative. This is why tobacco farming is dying here.

Tobacco farmers today deal with one brutal and primary fact: The real price of tobacco has not grown meaningfully in decades. In 1974, the average price for a pound of U.S. tobacco was roughly $1.09. In 2022 dollars, that would be $6.94. But in 2022, the price for that pound of tobacco was around $2.28, or less than 35 percent of its 1974 value. There is no doubt that tobacco money once built much of North Carolina and its institutions. But that was when tobacco was worth nearly three and four times what it is today.

Most federal benefits—in the form of price supports and crop quotas—went away in 2004, when, under the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act, the government bought out farmers who agreed to give up their tobacco quotas and quit farming tobacco. Quotas were part of the system established during the Depression to ensure that tobacco farmers wouldn’t be ruined by the untenable prices tobacco companies were offering. After the 2004 buyout, the number of tobacco farms in North Carolina fell from 7,850 in 2002 to fewer than 1,300 in 2022. Tobacco farming in the United States represents 0.004 percent of GDP. There were 6,150 tobacco farmers in the country in 2020, and the share of tobacco farmers and workers among all U.S. agricultural workers is now 0.037 percent. In 2014, the amount of land devoted to tobacco cultivation, as a portion of all U.S. agricultural land, was 0.04 percent and dropping.

Will Strader, a county extension director in Rockingham County, North Carolina, who grew up on a tobacco farm, described the situation in 2004 with his father’s words. “He told me multiple times that our family farm, when he was growing up, supported six families. And he said, ‘Now it’s getting to the point where I can’t support a family of three with this farm.’ So, you know, it got to a point where we had to go out. We had to go after the buyout.”

Today, farming tobacco means owning equipment worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars that no one—or very few—will ever want to buy from you. It means knowing when to spray and fertilize, when to crop, how to put up leaves in the barns, and how to control those barns so you don’t ruin everything the week the leaves are curing—knowledge that would be useless on another crop. It means dealing with several companies at once, all of which want a different style of tobacco from you but won’t tell you how much they’re going to pay until you’re done and the leaves are harvested. It’s loading your trucks and taking your leaf to weigh, hearing the company buyer grade your tobacco lower than is fair or right, and walking away with a price that might put you in debt.

The stakes are higher now. “The yield required to make it work is becoming, you know, nearly a record crop every year,” said Brandon Batten, a farmer in Four Oaks, North Carolina. “And that’s very hard to achieve.”

Batten is, like Linwood Scott, a sixth-generation tobacco farmer, on what is now the family’s Triple-B Farm. He didn’t think he would ever get a chance to grow tobacco or anything else on his family farm. There was no room for him there when he graduated high school, so he went off to North Carolina State University and ended up with a master’s degree in agricultural engineering. But when the buyout came along, Batten’s family decided to forego the money and continue growing tobacco. And because there was no longer a quota system to limit how many acres they could put in tobacco, the farm expanded and Batten was able to return. Now 38, he’s nearly a generation younger than Scott, and he has no illusions about what he’s gotten himself into.

The tobacco side of the farm has grown from 50 acres to 150, and the farm also produces soybeans and grain crops on another 850 acres. The family tried to get into sweet potatoes, but, unlike Scott’s farm, Batten’s operation wasn’t big enough. Still, Batten—now the farm manager—has not been shy about trying new things and new crops, whatever might work, including floral hemp for CBD, which here in North Carolina didn’t go so well. Too many farmers got too excited about it and raised too much of it for an industry in its infancy. “Show a farmer a profit, and he’ll show you an oversupply very quickly,” Batten told me. “We can work ourselves out of a profit.”

Where Linwood Scott and Scott Farms have gone as big as possible with tobacco in order to make the thin margins work, Batten has chosen to stay steady at 150 acres and focus on quality to get the best prices. The farm prioritizes efficiency, and Batten manages to make his crop with just six workers he hires each year through the federal H-2A visa system. He gets more pounds out of his acres than most farmers by controlling the smaller operation personally. If the operation got any bigger, he told me, he thinks his quality would suffer. If he makes a few hundred dollars to $1,000 an acre, he can stay in business.

Batten is a clean-shaven, kind-faced man. If he talks like a scholar of soil, he’s also social media savvy. He isn’t a smoker either, but, he said, he’s addicted to growing tobacco. It’s a beautiful plant, and you can practically see it growing—from four inches tall in April to five feet tall and three feet wide in June. He told me this with a note of wonder in his voice, like it still amazes him, and described the insurance salesman who envied him for having something to show for his labor at the end of the day. He wants his children to have the experience of looking out the window and seeing some of their beef cattle walking by, or riding with him in the combine when they’re picking corn. He wants them to see the beauty in all that. But he’s also wary of their falling too in love with it.

“Surviving is a good starting point,” he said. “That’s not ultimately the end goal, right? You want to thrive, make money, build something for the future. But when I came home from school, I was pretty sure I could make a living growing tobacco, and I was also fairly sure that if my children wanted to farm, they would probably have to farm something else. I’m 38 now, and I’m not sure that I will be able to spend my entire working career growing tobacco.”

Batten and his farm lost a 30-acre parcel just this year to the dynamics of development in rural areas, another phenomenon pushing tobacco farmers to the edge. The acres, which he had leased, are to become a housing development. “The generation that owns it dies, passes away, the kids inherit it,” he explained. “They’re scattered, living wherever they live in their own lives. They don’t need a farm in Johnston County.” He learned about the loss of the land when the county came out to the property to test it for suitability as a septic field. Afterward, Batten made a video and posted it on social media.

“I can weather a lot,” he said, getting into his tractor, visibly frustrated. “I can manage my way out of high input costs and tough markets, but I don’t know how to farm without land. If y’all can figure it out, let me know.”

One obvious answer to Batten’s rhetorical question, of course, would be to stop farming. And if farmers don’t stop of their own accord, perhaps they should be more strongly encouraged. Even Batten said he thought the end of tobacco would be “legislative.”

But for all its symbolic importance to the tobacco industry, to say nothing of its provision of cigarettes’ key ingredient, tobacco farming is mostly ignored by the worldwide anti-tobacco movement, which focuses its attention on battling smoking. “Squeezing on leaf growing may raise the price of leaf slightly, at least temporarily, but that would have a very small impact on the price of cigarettes,” said Chris Bostic, policy director of the tobacco watchdog group Action on Smoking and Health. According to Bostic, the public health community’s position is that reducing or ending tobacco farming in the United States—or any individual nation—would not meaningfully alter the business, because tobacco is grown in so many countries and so often exported and imported.

The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which went into effect in 2005, was the first international treaty devoted solely to health, and provides a blueprint for fighting the spread of tobacco and smoking worldwide. Most of it concerns regulating the markets for tobacco products, and a smaller portion touches on protecting the environment, not least by addressing the environmental costs of farming tobacco. In practice, this has meant almost exclusively working in low- and middle-income countries to enforce and promote labor standards and to undermine the international version of the tobacco prosperity myth, namely that tobacco is a path out of poverty and a boon to national economies.

The United States is one of only a handful of countries that have not ratified the treaty.

In the United States, attention to tobacco farming has of late been centered on fair and just labor practices, to include the protection of child tobacco workers. It is legal in the United States to employ agricultural workers as young as 12, with parental permission, as long as that work is not considered hazardous. In 2014, Human Rights Watch released a study in which it documented children as young as seven working tobacco fields in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. In the study’s sample of 141 children, the organization found that nearly three-quarters “reported the sudden onset of serious symptoms—including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and irritation to their eyes and mouths—while working in fields of tobacco plants and in barns with dried tobacco leaves and tobacco dust.” These are symptoms of “green tobacco sickness,” or acute nicotine poisoning, but the U.S. Department of Labor does not recognize that kind of exposure as hazardous. Many tobacco companies operating in the United States have established their own, more stringent rules against child labor in the contracts they make with farmers, but it’s unclear how those are policed or enforced.

Conditions for adult tobacco workers in the United States can vary widely. In the best scenario, they are hired through the federal H-2A visa program, which mandates and enforces fair pay, adequate and free housing, and other protections. In North Carolina, H-2A workers are protected under a contract negotiated by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the North Carolina Growers Association. But H-2A compliance is expensive compared to the cost of hiring labor through labor brokers, who are notorious for underpaying, silencing, and otherwise abusing workers. On occasion, a grower will be reported, but in one infamous case a farmer who happened to be a North Carolina state senator, accused of withholding pay and penalizing union members, received a notable donation of cash to his campaign fund from Reynolds American.

Recently, there have been efforts to eliminate all federal benefits to tobacco farmers. Many farmers left the business entirely after the 2004 buyout, together taking nearly $10 billion over 10 years as compensation for giving up their tobacco growing quotas. But the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation continues to support tobacco farmers with tens of millions of dollars a year. An amendment to the farm bill to cease that protection died several times in Congress between 2015 and 2018, and hasn’t been taken up again since.

The states where the most tobacco gets grown—North Carolina and Kentucky—both rank among the top 10 states for lowest taxes on cigarettes, and also among the top 10 for highest number of smoking-related cancer deaths. Maintaining low tax rates on cigarettes in tobacco states has long been a priority for Big Tobacco, going back to 1970, just after North Carolina raised a tax on cigarettes. The industry was afraid of the “domino effect.” As the Tobacco Tax Council put it back then: “Many states felt that if North Carolina would impose a tax on [cigarettes], its number one commodity, then why should we worry. The floodgates were opened in a number of states, and 15, to be exact, increased their [cigarette] tax rates in exorbitant degrees.”

This may have been sound strategy for Big Tobacco, but its special pressure on tobacco states left more North Carolinians dead.

Opposition and organization against child labor, unfair and unhealthy labor practices, ongoing tobacco insurance subsidies, and increased morbidity have not transformed into a general movement to end tobacco growing. And yet tobacco growing in the United States does indeed appear to be on its way out.

Should tobacco be allowed to die a natural death here in the United States? Since the 1950s, the amount of tobacco in a manufactured cigarette has shrunk by 37 percent, and since 1950 the amount of foreign tobacco in those cigarettes has increased by nearly five times, to an estimated 50 percent and probably more. Cigarette companies are not nearly as dependent on U.S. leaf as they might have been once. Tobacco farming has been declining in the United States since the mid-1950s. The number of farms growing tobacco here fell from 512,000 in 1954 to 6,237 in 2017, according to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture. The amount of acreage in tobacco fell, too: In 1954, the United States farmed 1.5 million acres in tobacco; in 2017, it was just 331,552 acres. These trends have been well-established for generations.

The United States is no longer the world’s biggest producer of tobacco. That would be China, where farmers grow 10 times as much as farmers here. Next are India, Brazil, and Indonesia. In many of these countries, Big Tobacco’s efforts to squeeze farmers have been memorialized in print, in contracts that essentially guarantee indentured servitude via debt to the companies themselves. In Malawi, currently the eighth-largest tobacco producer in the world, farmers call themselves “tobacco slaves.”

According to a WHO report, “More than 90 percent of the world’s tobacco is grown in low- and middle-income countries, mostly by smallholder farmers who need to use unpaid family labor to make ends meet, leading to child labor.” As the market penetration of cigarettes continues to shrink among adults worldwide, the big tobacco companies have pushed tobacco growing from the United States and Europe to countries where labor is cheap, and where they can have influence on policy. In Kenya, it takes 1,000 hours of unpaid labor to raise one acre of tobacco.

Some countries even offer subsidies to the companies, as well as tax holidays, low wages, and lax environmental standards. In Lebanon, small-scale production is so unprofitable that it could not exist without government subsidies. “Governments in African countries are often desperate for foreign direct investment,” said Roy Maconachie, professor of social and policy sciences at the University of Bath, during a public discussion of his film, Tobacco Slave. “These are poor countries, they’re often dependent on a single commodity. The companies often wield more power than the country itself.”

Despite the decline, we’re still the fifth-largest tobacco producer in the world, producing more than 200,000 metric tons last year. If we stopped growing tobacco tomorrow, those pounds would end up being grown somewhere else, becoming someone else’s problem. But there are still good reasons to end it now, and opportunities to be lost if we don’t.

Tobacco is a crop with few redeeming qualities. You can’t eat it, you can’t build houses with it, you can’t feed hogs with it, and the billion-plus people who smoke it get a little high, become addicted, and end up dying by the millions each year. Around 1.3 million nonsmokers die per year from exposure to secondhand smoke. If trends continue, nearly one billion people worldwide will die this century due to smoking. Tobacco production uses and pollutes 22 billion tons of water, or 0.2 percent of the Amazon River’s annual discharge. According to the World Health Organization, “for every kilogram of tobacco that is not produced, consumed, and disposed of,” one person’s yearly need for drinking water can be met. Up to 25 percent of tobacco farmers worldwide suffer from green tobacco sickness, or nicotine poisoning, through repeated contact with the leaves. There are 1.3 million children involved in tobacco growing worldwide. Five percent of the world’s annual deforestation is attributable to clearing forests for tobacco fields. Production and consumption of tobacco annually releases 80 million tons of carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere.

People in tobacco states die from smoking-related cancers at a higher rate than most of the rest of the country. Tobacco-producing states are reliable sources of politicians to lobby and legislate on behalf of Big Tobacco in Washington. Some U.S. tobacco growers are abusive union-busters who house their workers in filthy hovels; others withhold pay and employ 12-year-olds who get sick from nicotine exposure. Growing tobacco normalizes the use of tobacco and makes it seem a normal crop, when in truth it is a crop that was transformed from a relatively benign plant used by native people in ritual and medicine into a pox on the earth and its people.

Perhaps the best reason to purposely end tobacco cultivation might be to explode the prosperity myth being peddled around the world to lure in new growers in new countries. Just as the Tobacco Tax Council once warned of the domino effect that might come from a tobacco state raising a cigarette tax, what if the country at the epicenter of the worldwide smoking plague—the country that invented the tobacco prosperity story—said “No more”? What if we demonstrated that tobacco is not a miracle crop, that if it was once an economic boon to communities and states, this hasn’t been true for decades? And if it’s not true here, where the tobacco industry was born, how likely is it to be true abroad? Perhaps there might be some real power in ridding tobacco’s birthplace of tobacco.

Either because it becomes untenable for farmers to keep growing the crop on a large scale or because we take the radical step of purposely extinguishing it, tobacco will end its run here, on the coastal plain of North Carolina, a reasonable distance on either side of I-95. Outlawing tobacco, of course, would require another buyout to cover the cost of farmers’ switching crops or getting out of farming altogether. The price tag of the 2004 buyout was $10 billion to detach the federal government from tobacco subsidies; a second buyout would have to detach farmers from the crop itself, and the total price of that would be at least twice as expensive—possibly as much as two to three times as expensive—as the first buyout if structured similarly.

There is practical and symbolic value in ending the normalization of growing a crop that is so deadly and addictive. But there is cost, too.

Linwood Scott thinks he wouldn’t be himself without tobacco. His childhood would have been different, how he lived his days would have been different, how the world smelled during curing time would have been different. Perhaps it’s not worth thinking about what he might have been without it, because tobacco is what he did, who he was, and who he is.

In his fifties, he is a man as much grown by tobacco as he is its grower. Stopping tobacco would be a loss for him, even a loss of himself. But someone has to be the last one holding the seeds.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization.