Tobacco barons smoke out the enemy

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The Independent Online
Winston-Salem, North Carolina - It is 9 am at the New Deal warehouse and Chuck Jordan, the "1989 World Champion Tobacco Auctioneer", goes about his legendary business. He proceeds up and down the lines of tobacco "piles", each between 200 and 275lb, laid across an area the size of a soccer field, making his poetry as he goes along. Trailing him are a cohort of buyers from the big tobacco companies. "Who'll give me ninety-one, ninety-two, done ... ninety-one, ninety-two ... "

The words flow endlessly, a hypnotic incantation. A clerk scrawls the details on each label, followed by a woman who attaches a coloured tag to each pile. Yellow signifies Camel, green Lorillard, and red-and-white Philip Morris.

Whatever else this sale may be, it is not an auction. The agreed price never varies: a handsome $1.92 (pounds 1.24) a pound, even for poor quality tobacco, yellowy-green not golden of leaf, and mouldy. Strange goings- on perhaps, but then for the tobacco trade these are not ordinary times: their product persecuted as never before by government, but commanding record prices by the week.

In Winston-Salem, tobacco runs in the blood. "Ain't no 'bacco, be a ghost town round here," muttered one grizzled old farmer as he surveys proceedings, a cigarette clamped between his lips. An exaggeration, given North Carolina's booming and increasingly diversified economy. But the weed still accounts for one in 11 jobs in the state, and this town is built on the stuff. Or, more exactly, on the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, founded in 1875.

The one distinction of an "Anywhere USA" skyline is RJR's 22-storey headquarters, built in 1927 in the Art Deco style and reputedly the inspiration for the Empire State Building in New York. Winston-Salem is surely the only town anywhere to have given its name to two best-selling cigarette brands (remember those 1968 advertisements, how the menthol Salems "gently air-soften each puff for a taste that's country-soft. Take a puff - its springtime"?)

A marketing pitch like that would be a category-one felony today, when RJR's chief executive is accused of lying to Congress, when each week brings a billion-dollar lawsuit and a fresh anti-smoking sermon from the President, and the government seeks to classify tobacco as a dangerous drug.

You sense the siege mentality instantly at Whitaker Park, on the northern edge of the city, its fountains and gardens providing the setting for a state-of-the-art factory capable of turning out 275 million cigarettes a day, one fifth of all the tobacco consumed in the US. A prim, tight- faced woman took me on the standard 30-minute tour of the plant, not deviating an instant from her prepared script, even for the most innocuous of questions. Afterwards you get an RJR pen, a disposable fold-out ashtray, an RJR book of matches, "and would you like a complimentary pack of cigarettes, Sir?"

At the New Deal warehouse, however, there is no trace of defensiveness. Everyone assumes the Clinton administration's assault is an election-year ploy to win votes in other states (though assuredly not in North Carolina). "We haven't suffered any problems yet," says Stewart Pruilt, who runs a 12-acre farm near Pilot Mountain, north of Winston-Salem. "Of course, if this goes on, it could change. But the whole thing is political; it's not as if tobacco is hurting people who don't know. Everyone knows it harms." The 32,000lb of tobacco he'll sell in 1996 will fetch $60,000.

Sam Young, manager of the 37 million lb of sales allocated by the federal government to the Winston-Salem region, cannot remember when prices were so high for so long. But even he wonders what is going on as the companies no longer even pretend to compete on the bidding. "They contend there's a world shortage of tobacco, and of course the hurricane [Fran, which ravaged North Carolina earlier this month] didn't help. But these high prices may be a deliberate way of telling the farmers and the industry: `Don't worry; we're behind you'."

And so the tobacco wars continue. Whatever happens in the US, humankind's fondness for the weed is, if anything, increasing. As the sunlight shafts down from windows as through the stained glass of a cathedral, the warehouse seems a church, and his business eternal. Out on the floor Chuck Jordan pursues his mantra: "Who'll give me ninety-one, ninety-two... ninety-two, ninety-two ..."