Wednesday, September 4, 1996
Harsh realities exist in debate over tobacco

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bob Flaig and his son, Steve, know the value of hard work and the bitter taste of frustration.

The same goes for Arthur Richards and Debasish Roychowdhury.

While doing their demanding jobs, all four men have been swept up in the increasingly strident debate over tobacco. Talking with them in the wake of the Democratic convention and its emotional anti-tobacco message, I was struck by how much they had in common.

Bob and Steve farm tobacco, 27 acres of it in Union, Ky. They're upset with the government's crackdown on teen-age smoking, the president's decision to regulate tobacco as a drug and Vice President Al Gore's tearful convention speech about his sister's death from lung cancer.

''Tobacco is like religion,'' Steve Flaig says. ''It's not bad for you if you don't overdo it.''

His father calls the government's anti-tobacco campaign ''just politics. It's being done to get votes. Al Gore's speech was pure schmaltz. These damned fools, the big guys like Clinton, are knocking us little guys around like a bunch of bowling pins.''

Arthur and Debasish work on tobacco's aftermath. They are physicians whose specialty is treating lung cancer.

''Sometimes, I feel I'm in the wrong profession,'' sighs Dr. Roychowdhury, who sees lung cancer patients at the Veterans Administration and University hospitals. ''I lose 80 percent of my patients.''

''It's a horrible death,'' notes Dr. Richards, a 56-year-old medical oncologist with 23 years' experience in treating cancer. ''Six months to a year of pure hell. If only I could get through to people to stop smoking.''

A big cash crop

Bob and Steve Flaig don't smoke.

''Steve quit four years ago,'' Bob Flaig announces as he leans on a wagon of freshly harvested tobacco.

The aroma from the plants' rubbery leaves fills the air with a sweet-sour smell not unlike fresh-cut cornstalks. In the background, his son and a six-man crew are finishing their lunch under a shade tree. They're laughing softly, poking fun at their work-soiled clothes.

''This is dirty, sticky work,'' Bob Flaig says.

He's done the work. But he doesn't sample the crop.

''I've never smoked three cigarettes in my entire life,'' he says. ''I can't stand 'em.''

But that hasn't stopped him from growing tobacco. Bob Flaig has raised the stuff for 43 of his 77 years. His son, Steve, 45, has been farming since he was 3. They also raise 400 acres of soybeans, 360 acres of corn, 95 acres of wheat. But tobacco is their cash crop.

Bob Flaig fishes a calculator from his pocket to explain why he can't stop growing tobacco. Last year, an acre of tobacco earned $4,600. ''Say you get 200 bushels of corn from an acre. At $3 a bushel, that's just $600.''

Do the math. Tobacco money is what his family lives on.

Grim prognosis

''Smoking tobacco is the No. 1 human activity that will give you lung cancer,'' says Dr. Roychowdhury.

Calling the disease ''an epidemic,'' the 35-year-old doctor cites statistics of 170,000 cases of lung cancer in America every year and 150,000 fatalities.

Death does not come fast or painlessly. ''Did you ever run so fast down a hill that you ran out of breath?'' Dr. Richards asks. ''Lung cancer patients are in excruciating pain and gasping for breath like that all of the time.''

Like the tobacco farmers in Kentucky, Dr. Roychowdhury talks of 12-hour work days. His begin at 7 a.m. with patient visits and end at 7 p.m. with research projects and seminars on tumors and their treatment.

''It's a packed 12 hours,'' he says. ''There's very little time to sit down and eat or have fun.''

So, after talking with four hard-working men at opposite ends of the tobacco debate, I see no easy enemy or easy answer.

What sticks in my mind is the tobacco pickers' lunch. I can hear the men's low laughter and the words of Bob Flaig:

''This argument over tobacco is going to go on forever. You'll be dead and I'll be dead. And this crop will still be going strong.''

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.