Health Care

Rogers: Whether you smoke it or work in it, tobacco is fraught with danger

A worker at Double J Farms sorts through tobacco leaves as they are prepared for drying and storage.
A worker at Double J Farms sorts through tobacco leaves as they are prepared for drying and storage. kjahner@newsobserver.com

I smoked cigarettes for 50 years or so. I especially remember the first one. My buddy John swiped two Lucky Strikes from his daddy’s pack and we hid behind his garage to take that first puff of a magical weed that would turn two skinny, greasy and pimple-faced nerds into the Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne of Wilson.

But instead of squinting through the smoke at Lauren Bacall or Maureen O’Hara, our first puffs left us coughing, gagging, dizzy and disoriented. There’s a name for that: nicotine poisoning.

And to show just how smart we were, we did it again! We kept forcing ourselves to smoke until we got over the falling down and puking phase and moved into keeping an unlit smoke tucked behind our ears as we strolled down Nash Street with the taps on our shoes going clickety-clack. We defined ’50s cool.

The Duke later developed lung cancer and Bogart would die of it. The jury is still our on what will put us under, but smoking is a leading contender.

Tobacco is nasty stuff. Our mamas knew it long before the surgeon general.

It is bad to smoke it, chew it or dip it. Now the Human Rights Watch has done a study that says even working in tobacco fields is unhealthy, especially for children. The report was released in May and said that kids exposed to green tobacco frequently exhibited signs of nicotine poisoning: dizziness, nausea, disorientation, headaches and sometimes fainting.

Sound familiar? If you ever worked in tobacco fields you’ll recognize those symptoms. We even had a name for it: “getting the monkey on your back.” It was that craziness that comes on you on a day with hot sun, high humidity, wet tobacco and no breeze.

I spent four summers in the early 1950s putting in tobacco in Columbus County. I’ve seen grown men cry, fight, pass out, throw up and have seizures. One man I remember, a bruiser of a fellow, had hallucinations. He started screaming that there were snakes all over him.

‘Green tobacco sickness’

Scientists call it “green tobacco sickness.” Research has discovered that working all day in a tobacco field puts enough nicotine in your system to equal smoking 35 cigarettes.

And it is not just the harvesting that is dangerous. Comparatively easy tasks such as suckering and topping, which are often the job of women and kids, also transfer dangerous levels of nicotine into their system.

Tobacco is fraught with danger for kids. My job was a dragger. The croppers would pull the leaves off the plant, tuck them under their arms until they had a load and then dump them into a sled-like contraption with burlap sides called a drag. That’s when I’d take off for the barn with my load and the other dragger would take my place. I’d unload my drag and head back to the field.

We were soaking wet after the first load. Scientists have now discovered that tobacco wet with morning dew or rain releases even more nicotine onto your skin.

The danger began even before harvest time. Young tobacco plants were treated with pesticides. That treatment began in the early spring when the plants were beginning to grow.

Daddy would take a large can, punch holes in the bottom and attach it to a tobacco stick. He’d then fill it with a white powder and hand it to me. My job was to go down the row, hold the can over each plant and give it a shake. The white powder would drift down and cling to the wet tobacco plant, my bare feet and my clothes.

I never asked at the time but it was likely DDT.

No U.S. bans

The Human Rights Watch reports that it is illegal for children to work in tobacco fields in places such as Russia and Kazakhstan. The United States even spent $2.75 million to eliminate child labor in tobacco fields in Malawi, wherever that is.

But in this country? Nothing. Even a modest proposal to ban children younger than 18 from working in fields other than those belonging to their own family was dropped by the government after lobbyists for the tobacco industry and farm groups complained. We’ve made it illegal to sell cigarettes to minors but we can hire them to work all day in it. Does that make sense?

Tobacco has been a golden crop for North Carolina. It has paid for universities, medical centers, pickup trucks, homes and flat-screen televisions. It has clothed and fed people and sent their kids to school for generations.

But the demon weed demands its tribute. This comes straight from the American Lung Association: “Every year tobacco kills more Americans than did World War II – more than AIDS, cocaine, heroin, alcohol, vehicular accidents, homicide and suicide combined. Approximately 443,000 people die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke each year.”

Was it worth it, North Carolina?

Dennis Rogers quit smoking 10 years ago.

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