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The "demons' of tobacco

Published Mar. 15, 1998|Updated Sept. 12, 2005

At the annual meeting of Tobacco Associates Inc., the international marketing group for U.S. flue-cured tobacco, held last week in Raleigh, N.C., the group's president, Kirk Wayne, sounded an alarm that frightens Southern growers.

"I have never seen the situation for tobacco so serious," Wayne said. "The health of children and the economic viability of U.S. farmers need not be in conflict."

Wayne's comments came at the very moment that Congress was debating a proposed $368.5-billion settlement with the tobacco industry. His reference to children alludes to the explosive charge that, as early as the 1960s, senior executives and board members of the big companies considered underage smokers a major market and tracked smoking trends among youngsters while lying about hawking their product to them.

Who are these Southern growers seen by many other Americans as the producers of an evil product that addicts children? Are these farmers demons?

While on vacation in Southside Virginia, I, a former four-pack-a-day smoker, visited Richard Inge, 75, and his wife Reba, 72. Born in Creedmoor, N.C., Richard Inge served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and saw action in the Pacific.

The Inges, who call each other "Honey" and "Sugarfoot," have been growing tobacco all of their lives, like their forebears. Theirs is not the history of wealthy land barons. Their families, like most others in this region, lost everything during the Depression and had to start from scratch.

After marrying in 1946, the Inges raised tobacco on the half-share system, working one day for themselves and one for the owner, a woman whose husband had died. Eventually, they bought the 100-acre farm for $1,000, which they own today and where they reared their two sons and two daughters, who have successful professional careers. They also have six grandchildren.

How, I asked the Inges, do they justify growing a product that medical experts claim is addictive and causes lung cancer and other deadly diseases?

First of all, Reba Inge said, their detractors need to realize that she and her husband have a small family farm, that they are human beings _ not demons out to harm other people or their children.

"We are people who love country life," she said. "Our children were happy growing up on the farm. They were carefree and worked hard. They enjoyed it, even though they were so tired at night that they didn't know what to do. We taught them responsibility. They had to feed their own calves, bring in wood for the stove and fireplace.

"They got up at 5 a.m. and worked in the field all day until the tobacco was in the barn. That sense of responsibility has carried over throughout their lives. They're pushing their children with the same ideals. Three of our grandchildren are in college. The other three aren't old enough yet. You have to go after things. Nobody's gonna give it to you. Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability. We raised them to have spiritual lives and to be responsible for their families."

The Inges want the enemies of tobacco to know that they, like other farmers, are the economic, social and civic backbone of their communities. He, for example, always has worked with youngsters by serving with the 4-H Club. Among his many other functions, he has been president of the PTA for three different schools; current president of the local Farm Bureau, a position he has held for 24 years; a member of the Taxation Equalization Board; a member of the State Tobacco Advisory Board.

"In my years with children, I have never promoted smoking tobacco or alcohol _ or sex," he said.

Reba Inge spends much of her spare time visiting public schools and civic organizations lecturing on life on the farm and how crops go from the field to the table.

Refusing to be demonized without a fight, the Inges point out that they grow a legal crop. One of the main problems, said Richard Inge, who smoked three packs of Marlboros a a day since he was a teenager until three years ago, is that tobacco opponents do not seem to follow his and his wife's example: "We tried to bring up our children right and prepared them to make decisions for themselves when they were of age."

For that reason, perhaps, he and his wife said, their children formed their own opinions about tobacco. "Even though they saw me smoke every day, none of our children ever smoked," he said. "I advised them not to smoke. But I advised them not to drink, too. If they had gone away to college and decided to smoke, that would've been their business."

Richard Inge and his wife said that they believe that cigarette smoking is a habit but not an addiction. He uses his own experience with tobacco as evidence. He said that while standing at a plant bed one morning, he decided to give up the habit. He took the pack out of his pocket, crushed it and threw it into the woods.

With no science to support them, he and his wife do not believe that tobacco causes cancer, and they reject any notion that second-hand smoke makes people ill. Second-hand smoke, Richard Inge said, can be no worse than the hay dust and chemical fumes that he and other farmers have inhaled for years.

The couple say that they are not in deep denial about the harmful effects of tobacco and argue, furthermore, that the product is a convenient scapegoat for their enemies and a money bag for lawyers on both sides.

"I don't think I'm totally in denial," Reba Inge said. "I just don't think tobacco causes everything people are accusing it of causing. Tobacco smoking might aggravate some things. You are going to get bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema and other things. Smoking, in my mind, didn't necessarily cause it."

More than anything else, the Inges, whose farm is 20 years behind in technology, want to be seen as decent people selling a legal crop. "I'm not mad at the people who demonize us," Richard Inge said. "But I wish that they would come and see us for who we are and change their perspective."

Does he miss smoking?

"Yes, I enjoyed every cigarette I ever smoked," he said, fingering an unlit, chewed cigar. Others, still in their wrappers, sit on the table. Staring at the cigars, he said, "I never light them up. They're the cheapest I can find. Just something to play with."