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How Virginia's tobacco legacy endures in new packaging

A close up photo of a growing tobacco plant
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Tobacco remains a prominent part of Virginia history, despite it's infamous roots.

From the inception of Virginia as a colony, tobacco has been essential to the history of the Commonwealth. It's also been infamous in our past as a huge cash crop and a key element of the slave trade. Today, tobacco remains prominent across the nation in gas stations and supermarkets and has evolved into new forms, such as e-cigarettes and vapes. 


A.J. NWOKO: From the inception of Virginia as a colony, and eventually a state, tobacco, from the beginning, has been at its core, a centuries-old cash crop turned industry with notorious roots that's impacted the very trajectory of the Commonwealth.

FRANKIE G: I believe so, yep.

A.J. NWOKO: Frankie G. picked up vaping,

CLERK: And good to go.

FRANKIE G: That's fine.

A.J. NWOKO: To drop a decades-long addiction.

FRANKIE G: 20 years. It was like, 2014 when I quit. When my mother passed away of cancer, like, I did it for her because she always wanted me to quit.

A.J. NWOKO: Frankie says infamous iconography influenced his desire to light up.

FRANKIE G: Like, I grew up as a child of the '80s so like, Joe Camel was a thing and my father smoked Camel. So like, brand recognition was like, obviously there.

A.J. NWOKO: But the legacy of tobacco goes back much further than the mascots of the '80s.


A.J. NWOKO: Historians like Nicole Sackley with the University of Richmond says the notorious rise of tobacco begins right here in Virginia.

NICOLE SACKLEY: If we want to talk about that layered history we have to start back in the 1600s.

A.J. NWOKO: That relationship immortalized in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom where the slave trade helped fuel the spread of tobacco throughout the country for centuries.

NICOLE SACKLEY: Tobacco is important in all of the history of Virginia but it's only when tobacco becomes tied to the cigarette after World War 1 that Virginia becomes a center of the cigarette industry.

A.J. NWOKO: Sackley says advertising became paramount to the industry's success from print to television. And while those now infamous cigarette ads have been banned from television, they're forever accessible over the web even from the phones, and our pockets.

AD 1: Kent is kind tasting to your taste buds.

AD 2: ♪ They'll taste good ♪ ♪ like a cigarette should ♪

AD 3: Do you inhale? Then you're better off smoking Philip Morris.

NICOLE SACKLEY: It featured advertising that tied tobacco to the identity of this Commonwealth.

A.J. NWOKO: But Sackley says the Surgeon General's report in 1964, which showed adult smokers how harmful the deadly habit was, pressured the industry to entice a newer target audience.

NICOLE SACKLEY: The tobacco industry is seeking more new smokers. They need, in their terms, replacement smokers.

A.J. NWOKO: And Sackley says the industry wanted to make sure young smokers were hooked.

NICOLE SACKLEY: What most people did not understand was the way in which the tobacco industry was operating behind the scenes to make it not so much a choice but something that was addictive.

A.J. NWOKO: But the industry would wind up suffering its first huge blow with the landmark lawsuit in 1998.

NICOLE SACKLEY: It was not until people began suing the tobacco industry and in the legal process of discovery that they learned that, in fact, big tobacco knew very well that it was targeting children.

A.J. NWOKO: But if the monolith that is the Philip Morris plant visible from I-95 is any indication, the industry, like an old habit dies hard. And when the smoke of those lawsuits cleared it paved the way for the E-cig industry and companies like JUUL to target that same young audience. 21-year-old Colby C. knows from experience.

COLBY C: On Instagram, Twitter, name it. You saw JUUL advertisements online. I was 15 when I regularly started. I have not quit vaping since I was about 15.

A.J. NWOKO: But the E-cig industry has not been spared from similar lawsuits fueled by parents and advocacy groups for its advertising practices. Just this September, JUUL agreed to pay nearly $440 million over the next decade to settle a two-year investigation by 33 states, including Virginia for the marketing of its high nicotine and flavored vape products to young people.

COLBY C: It's a lot more concentrated dose of nicotine. Yeah, that's what it's designed for.

NICOLE SACKLEY: But I think it's interesting, the ways in which Americans require a defense of the child in order to regulate a product.

A.J. NWOKO: For VPM News, I'm A. J. Nwoko.


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