Influence of tobacco fading in North Carolina

SMITHFIELD — Just a few years ago, a legislator in Raleigh would have been wasting time trying to raise the cigarette tax or to ban smoking in places such as the White Swan Barbecue, a roadside motel-turned-diner on U.S. 301 in Johnston County where customers are free to puff away.

This year, the legislature may do both.

Linwood Parker, owner of the White Swan, knows about commerce and politics, and he has watched tobacco's influence on both collapse. Parker used to rake in $3,000 a week as workers from the now-defunct Smithfield tobacco auction market streamed into his restaurant. Many of those customers – and the money they spent – are now gone.

The next shot may come this year from the state legislature. The possibility of lawmakers passing another cigarette tax increase and a ban on smoking in restaurants and workplaces illustrates just how far the golden leaf industry has fallen within North Carolina.

"It's really a collapse of the political support," said Peter Daniel, assistant to the president of the N.C. Farm Bureau.

North Carolina still produces more tobacco than any other state, and its legacy is evident throughout the state. The Durham Bulls minor league baseball team drew its name from a brand of tobacco. Duke and Wake Forest universities were built on millions of packs of cigarettes. Two popular cigarette brands, Winston and Salem, got their names from one of North Carolina's largest cities, Winston-Salem.

"You can't drive by a school or hospital in eastern North Carolina," said Parker, "that wasn't built with tobacco money."

That legacy is fading.

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