Tobacco Capitalism tells the story of the people who live and work on U.S. tobacco farms at a time when the global tobacco industry is undergoing profound changes. Against the backdrop of the antitobacco movement, the globalization and industrialization of agriculture, and intense debates over immigration, Peter Benson draws on years of field research to examine the moral and financial struggles of growers, the difficult conditions that affect Mexican migrant workers, and the complex politics of citizenship and economic decline in communities dependent on this most harmful commodity.
Benson tracks the development of tobacco farming since the plantation slavery period and the formation of a powerful tobacco industry presence in North Carolina. In recent decades, tobacco companies that sent farms into crisis by aggressively switching to cheaper foreign leaf have coached growers to blame the state, public health, and aggrieved racial minorities for financial hardship and feelings of vilification. Economic globalization has exacerbated social and racial tensions in North Carolina, but the corporations that benefit have rarely been considered a key cause of harm and instability, and have now adopted social-responsibility platforms to elide liability for smoking disease. Parsing the nuances of history, power, and politics in rural America, Benson explores the cultural and ethical ambiguities of tobacco farming and offers concrete recommendations for the tobacco-control movement in the United States and worldwide.