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Here, pride in tobacco is unfiltered and king-size : There's no bad-mouthing of cigarettes on the public tour of R.J. Reynolds' Winston-Salem plant.

AMERICAN ALBUM

May 30, 1996|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — If these are anxious times for cigarette makers, you'd hardly know it here at the home of Joe Camel.

As they have been for 35 years, visitors to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Whitaker Park plant are welcomed to take a tour of the manufacturing operation, offered a free pack of smokes and ushered into an adults-only gift shop, where souvenirs range from a 59-cent butane lighter to a $179 Joe Camel pool cue.

It is not apparent here that big tobacco is under siege, with several states suing cigarette makers to recover smoking-related health costs. At least five federal grand juries are investigating charges that the companies regulate nicotine levels to control addiction. Domestic sales are down, the corporate image is low and the stock market is nervous.

But, says Judy Blankenship, a gift shop manager at R.J. Reynolds: "If people have a problem with smoking, they wouldn't come in." And if employees are asked about smoking-related health concerns, she adds, "We just don't comment. We have pride in tobacco."

Given the anti-smoking sentiment in much of the country--and the embattled position of tobacco firms accused of manipulating nicotine levels in what whistle-blowing scientists and the Food and Drug Administration call drug-delivery devices--a one-hour tour of the plant in its campus-like setting seems almost surreal.

But this is the heart of tobacco country in the nation's biggest tobacco-growing state. "It is hard to find any extended family in which someone doesn't derive some income from the tobacco industry," said Gayle Anderson, executive vice president of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce. "People here are committed to tobacco as a legal product, and there is almost a rush to its defense."

Greeted cordially by a guide, tourists hear about the various blends of tobaccos that go into R.J. Reynolds' Camel, Winston, Salem and about 50 other brands of cigarettes. They see finished smokes being spit from the automated machinery at the rate of 8,000 a minute. Those who linger in a small exhibition area after the tour can trace the company's founding by Richard Joshua Reynolds in 1875 to its current rank as the second-largest cigarette maker in the United States.

What visitors will not hear mentioned at the plant is the word "nicotine."

Nor among the exhibits showcasing the company's worldwide marketing campaigns, corporate philanthropy and support of smokers' rights will tourists hear about the U.S. surgeon general's warning or the World Health Organization estimates that each year about 3 million people, including 420,000 Americans, die of smoking-related causes.

"The purpose of the tour is not to talk about the controversy but rather to put a positive face on the industry and the people who make cigarettes," said company spokeswoman Kay Carter. "We cannot address all the issues out there, so we've chosen to take the positive route."

That route takes visitors right onto the floor of the cavernous manufacturing plant, where, under banners declaring, "We Work for Smokers," employees monitor computer-driven equipment capable of rolling, packing and boxing for shipment 275 million cigarettes a day.

Among the memorabilia on display are early cigarette packs, various ad campaigns and a history of Joe Camel--the mascot derived from a photograph of a circus animal called Old Joe and first introduced in 1913. By 1921, according to company history, Old Joe was the most famous dromedary in the world, and Camels the leading brand of cigarettes.

Anti-smoking activists say recent advertising using Joe Camel is targeted at teenagers--a charge the company denies.

While most residents of this city of 151,000 acknowledge that the industry is embattled, the controversy has not eroded local appreciation of R.J. Reynolds, which for decades was this area's leading employer and benefactor.

Nor, apparently, have concerns about smoking and health significantly affected local mores. Winston-Salem has no city ordinance banning smoking in public buildings, stores or offices.

More than 7,500 people work for R.J. Reynolds in this area. Although a recent study by local business leaders predicted that the firm would still be a major player here in the year 2020, it is no longer the leading employer. That distinction now goes to Bowman Gray/Baptist Hospital Medical Center, which bears the name of a former R.J. Reynolds board chairman and specializes in research on arteriosclerosis--including that caused by secondhand smoke.

At the plant, meanwhile, the number of visitors is declining. In 1995, 34,000 people showed up for the free tour, according to Carter, down 26% from two years earlier.

"I cannot discount that the numbers are down because of the controversy" over smoking, said Carter, adding that an Interstate 40 bypass that takes travelers around Winston-Salem may also be a factor.

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