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Ally and foe, tobacco was a complicated companion Watson Sims � June 28, 2009 12:15 AM Print this pageE-mail this articleShareDel.icio.usFacebookDiggRedditNewsvineTwitter Thousands of years after its discovery, the obituary of tobacco is being is being prepared in the country of its birth.

Congress has passed, and President Obama has signed, a law under which tobacco will be treated as a drug rather than an agricultural product.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in America, Indians smoked a sacred substance they called tabaco to celebrate the coming of peace.

Now, this same substance is blamed annually for 400,000 American deaths and $100 billion in health care costs.This is fateful news for North Carolina, which is by far the greatest U.S.

producer of tobacco.

It is also a poignant personal matter, for in my own life tobacco played the roles of savior and sustainer before turning into destroyer.SaviorI grew up on a farm in south Georgia during the Great Depression.

Cotton, our primary source of income, sold for five cents a pound, and we were desperately poor.

Then my father switched to tobacco.In February we planted seeds.

In March the plants were transferred to rows, three feet apart, over what had been cotton fields.

Plows and hoes kept away weeds as the plants put out spreading leaves.

Suckers, which were unwanted growth, were plucked so that the remaining leaves could achieve full and rich growth.�Suckering� was a disagreeable task, for under the hot Georgia sun, tar oozed from wherever a plant was wounded, blackening our ungloved hands.The harvest began in July, when bottom leaves of the plants began to turn golden.

Week after week, bottom leaves plucked, taken to heated barns and cooked until it was time to bring in the next week�s harvest.

Stooping amid dense rows to pluck from the bottom of each plant made sweltering afternoons seem endless, and growing tobacco was far more disagreeable than growing cotton.In September, the crop was graded, leaf by leaf, into bales ranging from highest to lowest quality of weight and appearance.

When the markets opened, our harvest brought not five cents but as much as $2 a pound.

The days of poverty were ended.SustainerAlthough my first cigarette came from my high school superintendent, I did not really smoke until I enlisted in the Navy at the beginning of World War II.

Shipmates on torpedo boats and submarines believed that smoking helped steady nerves, and although cigarettes were rationed or unavailable back home, top brands could be bought for six cents a package in submarines.

By the end of the war, I smoked a pack a day.What better place to take the habit than to journalism.

Some of my early advisers were convinced that typewriters would not work and appropriate words would not come until they lit a cigarette.

Soon, I was smoking two packs a day.DestroyerAll through these years, there were warnings that smoking was unhealthy.

My fingers turned yellow from nicotine.

Small blisters popped out on my hands, and I coughed increasingly.

The problem worsened after I became night editor of the London Associated Press bureau, and I consulted a doctor.Inspecting my yellow and blistered hands, Dr.

Alan Kennedy said, �Smoking has nothing to do with it.

I enjoy cigarettes.

Why shouldn�t you?�I finally stopped smoking on Nov.

22, 1963.

Two days earlier, President John F.

Kennedy had spoken at the Miami Convention of the Inter-American Press Association, of which I was a director.

The president went on to Dallas, where his assassination paralyzed the nation.

On that dreadful day, millions of American found reasons for personal atonement, and I pledged to give up cigarettes.

The day President Kennedy gave up his life may have prolonged my own.EpitaphHow will North Carolinians replace the more than half-billion dollars that came from growing tobacco? I see no magic cure such as replacing one crop with another.

And how will history judge America for subsidizing tobacco at home while demanding that other countries stop producing opium and marijuana that may be less harmful?The questions are blowing in the wind, but only time can bring the answers.Watson Sims was World Services Editor for The Associated Press before retiring to Asheville.
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