An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

December 3, 2009

Clearing The Air

On Tuesday of this week, a recently enacted smoking ban began in restaurants and bars across the entire state of Virginia. As both a rabid opponent of smoking and as an ex-smoker, I could not be happier. Here in Norfolk, most of the restaurants have been no-smoking for quite some time, but there are still a few that allow it, at least until this week. This move is quite a big step for Virginia - a place whose existence owes a great debt to tobacco. For years any anti-smoking legislation was held hostage by a small but powerful group of lawmakers who represented areas of the state where the tobacco crop was an important part of the economy, or where major cigarette manufacturers had their factories. Thankfully times are now different.

Cutting Burley

My hometown of Richmond was once one of the major tobacco cities of the world, and is still home to Philip Morris and its Marlboro brand. In parts of the city, the aroma coming from warehouses full of tobacco waiting to be made into cigarettes is surprisingly pleasant. There was once a Tobacco Parade that ran down Broad St. every fall that even had its own Tobacco Queen. The only mom on my street who worked full time, worked at American Tobacco's Lucky Strike factory. For the era the pay was considered excellent, and she had great benefits including full medical coverage. This coverage was needed as the company facilitated smoking among its employees by giving them a free carton of cigarettes for each vacation and long weekend.

Tobacco Harvesting 1

My own resume includes working in the tobacco business. My first real job was with a company that manufactured tobacco processing machinery. I started out as a janitor after school and then later worked as a welder's helper. It was good experience, but I determined it was not the kind of work I wanted to do the rest of my life. The company made all sorts of thrashers, cutters and choppers. One of the largest things they made was a house-trailer sized vacuum chamber used to fumigate tobacco. Many of these machines were sold locally, but quite a few were shipped to Africa for its nascent cigarette industry. The factory had maybe 60 employees, and I think less than 5 of them were non-smokers.

Cut Burley

It has been nearly 25 years since I quit smoking and it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. For the first few years of my not smoking I had recurring dreams in which I lit up. I would wake up angry at myself until I realized it had only been a dream. These days the very thought of smoking makes my throat tighten and after all the available information, I am amazed anyone still smokes. Then I remember how hard it was and how many attempts it took for me to finally quit.

Tonight we plan on celebrating my wife's birthday at one of our favorite restaurants, and will not have to ask for a table well away from the smoking section.

(These images are works of an employee of the United States Farm Security Administration or Office of War Information domestic photographic units, created during the course of the person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the images are in the public domain)


  1. Never thought today would come where restaurants were smoke free. What a pleasure. 25 years eh? Let's see....I guess my count is same!! How funny. Quit when I was pregnant with my first.
    Happy birthday to your wife, who I hope to meet one day.

  2. Our city restaurants just went non-smoking too. I myself have never smoked or had the desire to but I have friends and loved ones that do and they have been unsuccessful at quiting.

  3. Congrats on quitting, Les. My mom and sister once smoked and successfully quit after several attempts, and I could see how hard it was. My DH and I lived in Raleigh for 5 years in the early '90s, and when the city enacted a smoking ban indoors I couldn't have been more surprised, and pleased. Ironically, it took Austin (outside of the tobacco belt) a lot longer, but we finally got there too.

  4. I don't know if Smithfield ever had a Tobacco Queen but tobacco is still a big crop in Johnston County, along with soybeans. My husband's grandfather was a tobacco farmer and smoked and ended up with emphysema. My grandfather smoked and died of lung cancer. Both of them lived to be pretty old (80 and 72) but they would have been better off if they hadn't smoked, that's for certain. My husband takes care of a lot of patients with health problems resulting from smoking.

  5. Hope you have a grand celebration with your wife!
    It is amazing how much a power a plant can have over someone's life.
    Very interesting post,Les!


  6. Maine (my home state) went smoke free when I was still going to college in Williamsburg. It was weird and disorienting coming back from working in a smoke free pub all summer to going out with friends in a hazy restaurant back at school in VA. Smokers in Maine complained about it for a while (especially in winter) but now even most of them admit it's more pleasant without the smoke. And it didn't affect sales anywhere near as much as bar and restaurant owners feared.

  7. Janet,
    I quit after watching a great uncle die a long death from emphysema.

    Good for you for never starting.

    That surprises me as well about Raleigh. North Carolina is even more entrenched in the tobacco economy than Va.

    Sweet Bay,
    I have also known people who lived their 80's and even their 90's that still smoked, but what a toll it took.

    I am too amazed at what plants can do to and for people. Some of the more interesting ones seem to have dark quality to them.

    Bless restaurant and bar workers for putting up with all of that before bans came into being. The issue of workers was one of the reasons the bill was passed.


  8. Les, do you know when those intriguing pictures were taken? When did they last use mules/donkeys for transport?
    I wonder if you still have to run the gauntlet of smokers just outside the front door. Here they allow that with the doors open so it all still drifts happily inside the pubs.And there is already talk of relaxing the regulations as so many pubs are going out of business.
    Enjoy that dinner.

  9. Jo,
    Yes there have been gaunlets here for years, particularly on rainy cold days. Most places put this ban in effect a while ago, now it is just mandatory.

    From what I could tell the pictures were taken in the late 1930's or early 40's.


  10. Thanks for the background history. This is particularly interesting since we just returned from Turkey and one of the cultural stops there was a lunch at the home of a small tobacco farmer. He showed us the strings of small tobacco leaves (much different than the U.S. crops) and said they have had a steady export business to the U.S. where Camels apparently state they use a mix of Turkish and U.S. tobacco. I was amazed at the hand labor involved in picking and then stringing the tobacco leaves for drying.

  11. As soon as I got to your site, I thought 'where did he get these photographs?' - so thanks for the information at the end of the post.

    We've been smoke-free for awhile here, and it's great. Only one bar (on Sullivan's Island) fought against it (or at least was vocal about fighting against the ban) - and it's nice to not think about who you're sitting near (and whether they are smoking or not). I've never smoked (at least much) but have spent my share of time in smokey bars!

    My Mom's sister - the one with the family farm outside of Petersburg, well, they grew mostly tobacco when I was growing up - some other things too, like watermelon, canteloupe - but it was tobacco that paid the bills. There was such a rich (and complicated) culture around growing tobacco - perhaps it is because so much of it happened by hand - there was an intimacy associated with the process that was different than with corn or soybeans or wheat (at least, within the same time period). Maybe it's that intimacy - the fact that people were in so many of the photographs - that makes this agronomic practice so compelling.

  12. John,
    Thanks for the Turkey link. Until tobacco gets to the factory it is very much a hands on crop.

    Tobacco farming is an anachronism in these days of corporate agriculture. It is still very much a family operation requiring a lot of hand work. I knew people who grew it as the college fund crop for their kids, and of course they had to help as well. Add to that the old auction system that takes place in dusty warehouses across the Southside of the state, and it is quite a contrast to the vast corporate farms that seem to be the order of the day.


  13. Amen to all that.

    I feel for bad for the smokers that I see standing outside doors in the cold, shivering, but I also know that my eyes water a lot less since it was banned from restaurants and offices.

    And I am completely sympathetic to how hard it must be to quit. It makes me despair for my students that smoke.

  14. A year ago my little sister, in college, posted Facebook pics of her smoking--just socially I'm sure. As the big bro, I wanted to shake her, but that's never worked, even at the federal government level. I wanted to take her back intime before she was born when the person who would hav eben her only grandfather was saddled with lung cancer, chemo, and a slow agonizing death. We all have these stories. When Lincoln went smoke free people whined and complained, said it was the government meddling in their private lives. You know, sometimes the government is right--and I can only hope such bans might both save some medicare payouts and save some families from parting before they should. Now, if only we'd all stop eating fast food, candy, not exercising, not sleeping enough, being stressed, stop murdering each other....

  15. Les, we are always astounded at how many people still smoke and especially with the associated cost, and even moreso those who do and likely cannot afford it. Fortunately our state has been smoke-free this entire year.

    I hope your wife enjoyed her birthday celebration in a "smoke-free" environment.

  16. Amazing images. I have been lucky, as an adult, to live in cities with smoking bans.

  17. Les, I remember flying into tobacco states and being overwhelmed with the smoke I am glad that more states and cities are enacting these laws. gail

  18. I live in MI and we just passed a "smoke free air" bill in congress - it is now on it's way to the governor's desk where she is expected to sign it. I have never smoked. I have reactive air-way and just being near some one smoking causes my airway to close. I have 2 inhalers. Good for you for quiting and good for your state for passing the law.

  19. Susan,
    Being a self-rightous ex-smoker, I have little sympathy for the cold puffers.

    At this point if anyone does not know the dangers of smoking, God help them, they have other issues. Maybe you should try snide comments and disdain on your little sister.

    Even in a low tax state like Va., they are $4 a pack. When I quit I was up to two packs a day but back then they were dirt cheap.

    I love finding and looking at old images, and like in so many other things, the internet has made it so easy.

    I rememeber going to JFK in New York when I was about 8 with my grandfather to pick up my grandmother. There were no smoking restrictions and the place was packed shoulder to shoulder, with so many people smoking my brother and I got burned several times.

    Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you live somewhere you can go about your day in good health.


  20. Do you remember me giving you cigarettes as a birthday present? If only someone had told me that smoking would ultimately cost me $30K in dental expenses! At least we know better now.


  21. Simple,
    Thanks for reminding me about such a thoughtful gift. However, my favorite from you has to be Wendy's lamp.