One of my (blessedly few) business travel horror stories occurred when a puddle jumper from Lynchburg, VA to Charlotte, NC was diverted to the airport in Winston-Salem because of a severe thunder storm. Unfortunately, the diversion took place after security had gone home for the day, so we were restricted to a small waiting area with very poor air conditioning. Naturally, this was in the summer time and, well, North Carolina can get hot.
Things may have changed by now, but at at time, company towns being what they are, smoking was allowed in Winston-Salem airport. Forget take a puff, it’s springtime. Us non-smokers were turning green, searching out wastebaskets, holding our heads between our knees, and praying for the storm to pass – or for some outside force to hurl a rock through the plate glass window overlooking the tarmac and let in some air. There may be no atheists in fox holes, but I assure you that they are equally absent hot, smoky, stuffy airport waiting rooms that you can’t step toe out of. Fortunately, there was a psychologist among those trapped, and he wandered around, calming people down and trying to get the smokers to ease up.
(Years ago, the company where my sister Trish worked had R.J. Reynolds as a client. In the reception area, where other companies might have a candy bowl, RJR had an outsized snifter full of cigarette packs.)
Not that I was never a smoker, but I was never much of one, or never much of one for anything other than brief stretches of time.
As a waitress I, of course, smoked, because in those days the only excuses you could use for taking a non-scheduled break was changing a tampon or “just grabbing a cigarette.” So I smoked. For years after I stopped, I’d occasionally have a cigarette – generally when I had a drink in the other hand and, of course, was standing around with a bunch of smokers, one from whom I could bum a smoke.
But I’m not a big tobacco fan, let alone a Big Tobacco fan.
I do know a tiny bit about tobacco economies, as my husband had an aunt and uncle in Western Massachusetts’ Connecticut Valley tobacco country. (Shade tobacco, used for cigar wrappers.) Well before I’d met Jim, they’d converted their farm to a golf course, of all things, but there were still (and still are) a number of operating tobacco farms in the area.
In converting their farm to a golf course, Bill and Carrie were apparently on to something: golf was growing in popularity, tobacco use was shrinking.
So I was quite interested in an article in this week’s Economist on efforts in North Carolina to capitalize on their being the home-base of the American tobacco industry.
For many years, tobacco reigned in North Carolina, with RJR as the biggest employer in Winston-Salem. (As in “Winston tastes good like a – da-da – cigarette should”, and “Take a puff, it’s springtime” Salem.) At mid-century, 60% of the city’s population worked either for RJR making cigarettes or Hanes making underwear.
But that was then, and this is smoke-free now.
Sure, thanks to selling in to new markets - hey, here’s an idea, let’s hook everyone in India and China! – tobacco’s not in its coffin quite yet. Still, in large part, fewer people smoke ‘em if they’ve got ‘em. Most of us don’t got ‘em. And we don’t want ‘em.
There’s still plenty of vestiges of RJR in Winston-Salem, but a major plant is now a science park which has 14 buildings that used to belong to RJR. But it’s not just the old buildings that matter:
Because it has been such an important cash crop for so long, it is among the most studied plants in the world—Richard Reich, the assistant commissioner for agricultural services in North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, calls it “the laboratory white rat” of the plant world. Much of that study, of course, was done by tobacco companies, and Targacept, one of the bioscience companies in the Piedmont Triad Research Park, is among the fruits of that labour. Spun out from RJR in 2000, and headed by J. Donald deBethizy, a former vice-president of R&D at RJR, Targacept is developing a range of drugs that target the body’s nicotinic receptors to treat a range of nervous-system disorders, including depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.
Here RJR spent all that time and money studying tobacco, trying to figure out how to addict people, and, later, not to kill them in the process, and now their spinout, Targacept, is using their knowledge of things-tobacco to do good?
Sow’s ear, meet silk purse.
Targacept isn’t the only one.
Down tobacco road a bit, in Durham (think: Bull Durham), Medicago’s using tobacco leaves to make flu vaccines. (Cough cough. Cough cough cough.)
… The company believes this method of making vaccines will be cheaper, faster and more effective than the egg-based method currently in use.
They may not exactly be beating swords into plowshares, but the fact that bio-tech’s able to take advantage of all that research on tobacco for uses that will actually benefit mankind…
I think I’ll put that in my pipe and smoke it.
Maybe there’s hope for us yet.