May 31, 2017

Winston Hasn’t Quit Tobacco, It Just Reduced Its Dependence

Today is World No Tobacco Day. All around the globe health advocates are mobilizing to educate people about the dangers of tobacco. This might seem like an old song to many. But the dangers of tobacco need repeating.

Tobacco consumption, in the form of chewing tobacco, cigarettes, e-cigarettes or any of the other nicotine-addicting products Big Tobacco peddles is bad news. Cigarettes, the deadly product that put Winston-Salem on the map, continue to kill 480,000 people in the U.S. each year.

A nasty opioid addiction can lead to a sudden overdose. By contrast, cigarettes kill people slowly and methodically. Often cancer, heart disease, and other serious tobacco-related diseases don’t surface until after 20 or 30 years of smoking.

While smoking rates in the United States are on the decline, they remain stubbornly high among African Americans. This is due to decades of relentless marketing of menthol cigarette brands by Reynolds and Lorillard. Reynolds marketed Salems and Kools to black communities. But they couldn’t compete with Lorillard’s Newport cigarettes. So they bought Lorillard in 2014, principally to acquire Newport and its loyal black consumers.

In 2016 Reynolds American was acquired by British American Tobacco (BAT). When the deal is finalized Reynolds will be an American Subsidiary of BAT. While Reynolds has been marketing its cigarettes to marginalized populations in the U.S., BAT has been busy marketing its cigarettes aggressively around the globe.

According to the Campaign For Tobacco Free Kids,  “BAT operates in 200 markets, is the third largest producer in the global tobacco market, and controls 11% of the international cigarette market.” Cigarette smoking is now a global epidemic, responsible for an estimated 6 million deaths a year. That’s what Reynolds and BAT are producing, a global epidemic, partially made in Winston.

Winston-Salem loves to celebrate its transformation from “Camel City” to the City of Arts and Innovation. But as long as Reynolds Tobacco Company is headquartered in Downtown Winston, our city’s transformation is mere branding. Sure, cigarettes aren’t made in Winston anymore. Handshake agreements are no longer made on the top floor of the Reynolds building, the way they were when Reynolds ruled Winston. But Winston is still an important piece in Big Tobacco’s cartel.

Each day hundreds of white-collar workers at the RJR Plaza Building on Main Street conspire to keep selling consumers a product that they know will kill them. Prominent Downtown Winston law firms continue to work to defend Reynolds’ indefensible actions from lawsuits.

Celebrating the city’s transformation, without acknowledging Reynolds in any way.

Think about that. Maybe your job doesn’t make the world a better place, but chances are it doesn’t kill people. But if you work for the mafia or Big Tobacco, that’s your job. Forgive me if I’m being too hard on the mafia.

Reynolds produces billions of cigarettes each year at its massive Tobaccoville campus. Though Reynolds has shed thousands of jobs over the last 30 years and loosened its grip on the city, Reynolds is still alive and well. Reynolds is still an important but seldom mentioned powerbroker in Winston. Reynolds continues to fund charities and non-profits in the city. Due to its generosity, Reynolds is viewed positively in Winston.

Yet, they’re still a despicable cigarette company that puts profits over people’s lives. Winston-Salem hasn’t quite tobacco, it has just reduced its dependence on tobacco. Winston won’t be a post-tobacco town until it confronts Reynolds Tobacco directly and acknowledges all the deaths Reynolds has produced for over a century.


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