Tobacco Road studies how to regulate the golden leaf

October 18, 2013 

The research folks at UNC-Chapel Hill must be champs at writing grant requests for the federal government. That, or the Food and Drug Administration figures where better to study how to become more sophisticated about tobacco regulation than in a state where once the golden leaf was king?

UNC-Chapel Hill is getting two of 14 “Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science” grants, and those grants will produce $40 million and create 100 jobs. The idea is to gather data to help the FDA, which now regulates tobacco products, do that better. The FDA will create campaigns on warning labels and public health commercials based on some of that data.

And, one center at the university will continue research on the health effects of tobacco.

If one could go back 40-plus years, perhaps a little longer, and forecast these developments to those associated with the tobacco industry, or politicians who took marching orders from that industry, the notion would be laughed out of the room. The state came reluctantly to tobacco regulation of any kind. Taking up smoking was for generations a rite of passage, even after health risks became clear.

North Carolina high schools were among the last to abandon smoking areas; even the Legislative Building allowed smoking not that long ago. And when some businesses and public offices first started banning smoking, there were episodes of hue and cry everywhere.

But yes, even in North Carolina, the advocates of smokers’ rights have been muted. And now, with the state becoming a center of research to help the FDA ultimately try to wipe out tobacco use using data demonstrating health problems, the transformation of the golden leaf state seems complete. (Tobacco companies, by the way, saw it coming; they diversified into a multitude of non-tobacco-related products.)

It’s true that North Carolina’s economy at one time counted tobacco, from R.J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem to American Tobacco in Durham, as a foundation of its economy. In downtown Winston-Salem, residents didn’t even notice the historic wafting of the odor of tobacco. And R.J. Reynolds built a company with good wages and benefits and developed strong loyalties on the part of employees. It sponsored sports events such as races and rodeos.

It also employed considerable numbers of outside firms to promote products…and to fight regulation.

But almost 50 years after the famous Surgeon General’s Report (or infamous as some tobacco people might describe it) and a bazillion-dollar “tobacco settlement” not that many years ago, tobacco companies don’t seem to have a lot of fight left when it comes to defending against the health risks of their products.

It is true that though taxes on cigarettes are fairly heavy (not as heavy as they should be in North Carolina) there is an element of “personal freedom” still protected. Smokers can’t smoke in airports or in many public places or in virtually all buildings public and private, but the product itself has not been banned.

But with 14 research centers building more and more data on tobacco’s effects, tobacco use likely will continue to dwindle. And now that we think about it, what better place to study tobacco than in a place where it’s still possible to walk to a field and pull out a leaf or two.

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