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Even in the Tobacco Belt States of the South, Cigarette Foes Are Making Inroads

February 21, 1988|TRIP DuBARD | Associated Press

ANDREWS, S.C. — Bobby Tisdale grew up with tobacco, raised his family on its profits and still depends on the harvest of its sweet-smelling leaves for income.

But he's quit smoking it.

"I hate to say that, being a tobacco farmer," said Tisdale, who's 60 and lives just outside this small community in the heart of South Carolina tobacco country. "I just can't smoke. It didn't agree with me."

Some three centuries after its commercial introduction, after its proceeds built schools and hospitals and provided economies for entire regions, tobacco is outliving its welcome in the South.

Tobacco still means money, some $156 million annually in South Carolina sales alone. And to many towns, the musical chant of tobacco auctioneers marks summer's zenith.

But studies linking smoking and secondhand smoke to cancer and other illnesses have caused widespread re-examination of tobacco's once unassailable position.

Of the top six tobacco producing states, the bottom three--Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia--have communities with smoking regulation ordinances, state offices of the American Lung Assn. report. In South Carolina, at least four counties and one city passed ordinances, all within the last year.

None of the others--North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, in order of their production--is known to have passed ordinances yet.

The restrictions range from prohibiting distribution of cigarette samples to mandating nonsmoking sections in restaurants and public buildings.

And though no statewide restrictions on adult smoking have passed in any of the major tobacco states, proposals are pending in several.

"It's a disturbing trend. There's no question about it," said South Carolina state Sen. Thomas Smith, landlord to about 40 acres of tobacco. "But I don't think it spells the end of the industry."

Look at all the communities that don't have such ordinances, said Brennan Moran, spokeswoman for the Tobacco Institute, the Washington-based trade association for U.S. cigarette manufacturers.

"I'm not sure that a trickle produces a significant trend," Moran said. "You will find many, many more communities without smoking restrictions than with smoking restrictions."

Still, Moran said, anti-smoking activists have chosen to concentrate their energies on the local level, a sign that more communities may be considering such ordinances soon.

"I don't think it's going to go away very easily," she said.

Joseph Stukes, chairman of the history department at Francis Marion College in Florence, sees a more sobering note in the actions.

"The main thing this says is that there are great numbers of us, even in the Tobacco Belt, who see this as a health issue instead of an economic issue," he said. "I think it's a signal for the tobacco farmer that they can't count on the people back home."

Increasingly, the farmers can't rely on consumers either.

Tobacco production and consumption have been falling since their peak in 1981. In that year, the nation's farmers harvested 974,000 acres to produce 2 billion pounds of tobacco, according to the Tobacco Institute.

But only five years later, production had dropped 40% to 1.2 billion pounds and acreage had shrunk to 597,200.

Similarly, in 1980, slightly more than one-third of the U.S. population smoked. By 1986, that figure had dropped to slightly more than one-fourth, according to figures from the Office of Smoking and Health, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

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