By Dr. Kimberly Muktarian
People of color have been on the wrong end of the tobacco trade since Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the drug to England in the 1500s. When Raleigh introduced this new leisure to England it created a cash crop that would later bail England out of debt, and make the first demands for labor to harvest tobacco in America.
Though Raleigh never ventured to North America himself, his actions influenced the slave trade in both North and South America. The first Africans appeared on the shores of North America as indentured servants and later the slave trade would become a lucrative product where both the slave and the products that they cultivated were subjected to European rule.
In 1861 the Confederates fought for their right to own slaves in the Civil War. The biggest crops in the Confederacy were tobacco and cotton. Without tobacco the demand for slaves might have been minimal.
Some may argue that tobacco is just a plant, but with 600 chemical injections of highly toxic products, tobacco is a very dangerous product. According to the CDC, cigarettes kill up to 460,000 on average a year. The CDC also lists the top five causes of death in America to be heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke and unintentional injuries. The CDC’s list of complications as a result of smoking cigarettes are heart disease, stroke, cancer, COPD, asthma and diabetes to name a few.
The decision to allow this product to remain on the market is quite disturbing. In 1994 the seven largest cigarette companies, including RJ Reynolds and Philip Morrison, were brought before Congress to discuss their product. They testified that their product does not cause cancer nor was it addictive. Yet, at the conclusion of the congressional hearing, the companies were made to pay restitution to each state that filed against them under the Master’s Settlement Agreement.
This agreement for restitution addressed the effects of smoking through commercials, prevention, succession and even treatment while allowing cigarette companies to keep their deadly product on the shelves. Many cigarette corporations funnel their proceeds to legislative campaigns, grants and various donation efforts. However they were never held accountable legally for the damage that they have done, and are still doing.
In December 2019 Governor Roy Cooper unveiled his Death By Distribution bill that would hold drug dealers accountable for the deaths of those who purchased their illegal drugs. However, the governor didn’t address the thousands that would die from tobacco. Also, his attorney general neglected to remove this product from the shelves under the “Consumer Protection Act.”
U.S. Surgeon General Allen warned that tobacco and cigarettes could be deadly to minorities with preexisting conditions stemming from smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. He noted that these core morbidities could subjugate minorities faster during the COVID-19 Pandemic. His message was to stay clear of these products.
Allen’s direct warnings contradicted Gov. Cooper’s Phase I mandate that classified ABC Liquor Stores as an essential business. Why did Cooper decide to leave liquor stores open? The decision must have been financially motivated because local stores such as Walmart, grocery stores, and even pharmacies sell alcohol.
Maybe a better question is, is North Carolina creating addicts? In the case of cigarettes, are certain people allowed to kill? While the CEOs of cigarette companies make over $100 million in salary and have never faced any jail time for the deaths they caused, Black drug dealers such as Jayson McNeil would be the first candidate to be charged with Death by Distribution.
There are still countless numbers of DWI cases whereby death by motor vehicle charges are attached to the driver. Because alcohol is legal, the perpetrator may only get three to five years in prison but a person who shoots and kills with a gun can get life.
The Master Settlement Agreement allowed the cigarette manufacturers to settle with the states, but not with the descendants of slavery who primed tobacco. We know this because David Tylek Atkinson was killed by Raleigh Police Officers after he robbed a convenience store taking cigarette packs and money. If he had been familiar with the royalties due slave descendants, he would have simply petitioned the state for his pay.
The state of North Carolina has yet to address the difference between the hazards of tobacco and marijuana, and why cigarettes are not classified a drug considering its high rate of addiction.
Marijuana, unlike cigarettes and alcohol, is not as dangerous yet its demonization continues. Those in law enforcement use the smell of marijuana as bait for further arrest. It is apparent that marijuana is used for more than recreation. Can cigarettes say the same?