LUMBERTON — A quarter century after tobacco was the money crop in Robeson County, bringing in hundreds of millions a year to farmers and those who provide support services, the amount of tobacco grown here is a fraction of what it was then.
But the number of Robeson County residents who smoke remains strong, the highest percentage in the state, causing a financial drain in a poor county and hurting its collective health.
North Carolina produced and sold more than $647 million worth of tobacco in 2016, putting it among the country’s leaders in flue-cured tobacco production, but Robeson’s once-booming production market is being replaced by consumption.
The rate of tobacco use in the county was 26.8 percent among adults in Robeson County during 2017, far higher than the state rate of 17.9 percent, and the national rate of 17.1 percent. With lenient tobacco laws, low taxes and a vulnerable low-income population, too many residents continue to inhale carcinogens, unable to quit or unwilling to try.
The American Lung Association recently released a set of grades for each state, measuring the effectiveness of tobacco cessation funding, smoke-free air laws, excise taxes, access to cessation treatments and laws to increase.
North Carolina received all F’s.
One subject the grades doesn’t cover is the health outcomes for those who use tobacco. The lung cancer incidence rate in North Carolina from 2010 to 2014 was 70 cases per 100,000 general population, topping the national average of 61.2 per 100,000, according to the American Lung Association. Robeson County exceeded both of those rates with 73.3 cases per 100,000.
Lung cancer is one example of many malignancies that can result from tobacco use. Cancer of the mouth, larynx, kidney and stomach are among the potential risks, and smoking is a major contributor to heart disease, the nation’s No. 1 killer.
Tobacco is also linked to chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Donnie Beck, a Lumberton resident, was a three-pack-a-day smoker for three decades beginning as a 19-year-old in 1969.
“Back then, they thought it was cool,” Beck said.
A pack of cigarettes was 35 cents at the time. As his addiction to tobacco grew stronger, Beck found himself going to the store in the middle of the night to get a smoke.
“I had a few health problems. My doctor told me I needed to quit smoking,” Beck said. “Plus, my new girlfriend said I was stinking. As a smoker, you can’t smell how you smell. After the doctor and after her, I decided to quit cold turkey.
“I just laid them down one day and said I was going to quit. I never touched another one. I had an urge for about two years to grab another one.”
Beck’s health and outlook on life improved, but he also realized the toll tobacco took on his wallet.
“When I quit, I think they were $1.25. If I was smoking today, I’d be spending $16 a day, which is astronomical when it comes to spending money.”
The current average price of a pack of cigarettes in North Carolina is around $5.50.
North Carolina’s cigarette excise tax is 45 cents per a 20-pack, according to data from the National Association of Tobacco Outlets — fifth-lowest total in the nation, far below from New York’s rate of $4.35, the nation’s highest.
Laws concerning where a person can and cannot smoke are more lenient in Robeson County than across the state and nation. Those laws get especially complicated when considering the differences between cigarettes and vaporizers.
“Alternative devices are viewed as tobacco,” said Bill Smith, director of the county Health Department. “No smoking means no cigarettes, but yes to vaping. No tobacco use restricts all of that.”
As of January, five states and about 285 municipalities had raised the minimum age for tobacco purchases to 21. While that change makes it tougher for younger people to obtain tobacco products, it is oftentimes the result of a number of other smaller initiatives.
“I’m not necessarily the biggest proponent of that, because states that went to do that also had high taxes, smoke-free workplaces, they’ve done a lot of other things,” Smith said. “The last thing left was to go to 21. North Carolina has a push for it, but you’ve skipped all these other things.”
A push to keep tobacco out of the hands of young people came in the form of court-ordered commercials broadcast by tobacco companies as a result of a 1999 lawsuit brought by the United States Department of Justice against Big Tobacco. A U.S. District Court judge ruled in 2006 that the companies would be held financially responsible for the commercials, but several appeals on the ruling delayed the mandate for almost 11 years.
The ads began to run on public television late in 2017, more than a decade after the lawsuit played out.
“It took so long that the kids don’t read the media (now),” Smith said. “They don’t read mainstream TV. By the time it played, the time the tobacco industry had strung it out so long, it lost the crowd they (the lawsuit’s plaintiffs) were trying to get.”
As the target audience for those advertisements aged, a major change also took place for tobacco producers in Robeson County.
The acreage covered by tobacco crops in the region, which exceeded 17,000 in the 1980s, began to fall drastically. By 2015, the county had an estimated 2,000 acres of tobacco on its farms.
A major reason for that decline was the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act of 2004.
Developed after years of lobbying for anti-tobacco legislation by President Bill Clinton, the Tobacco Reform Act deregulated U.S. tobacco production and ended guaranteed minimum prices for the crop.
The payment program came to an end in 2015. While many farmers benefited from the buyout over the years, the idea of not being able to rely on the check while tobacco commodity prices decreased around the country made the crop less appealing.
That factor, along with the rise in popularity of alternative smoking devices and an increased awareness of the dangers of smoking, contributed to the downfall of Robeson County’s tobacco industry.
Evidence of that downfall can be seen in the county’s agricultural census. In 1992, 29,821,830 pounds of tobacco were produced in Robeson. In 2012, the most recent census, that total had plummeted to 4,916,204.
Much of that tobacco might not even be burned in the United States. The popularity of flue-cured tobacco overseas has put a greater value on exporting the crop.
China was one of the main consumers of tobacco produced in North Carolina as of 2016, according to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.
An advertisement published by Robeson County Warehouse in The Robesonian in July 1942 read: “Tobacco growers: Tobacco is your money crop.”
The advertisement lists prices for tobacco at a variety of markets at the time before sending a bold message to the competition: “We lead — others follow.”
Seventy-six years later, that is no longer the case in Robeson County.
Reach Brandon Tester at 910-816-1989 or [email protected]