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Good clean tobacco: Philip Morris, biocapitalism, and the social course of stigma in North Carolina



In this article, I analyze the central role of economic liberalization in Philip Morris's makeover into a “responsible corporate citizen,” including the firm's unlikely support for U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation of tobacco products. On the basis of fieldwork in North Carolina, I provide an ethnographic view of how the recent shift from traditional auction marketing to private contract agriculture affects differently positioned farmers and farmworkers. This transition has galvanized both potent cultural meanings associated with locality and modes of stigmatization deployed by various actors to respond to social and economic restructuring. Ostensibly about improving public health, Philip Morris's makeover, linked to stringent producer contracts and government regulation of consumption, makes U.S. farm businesses less stable, deepens their dependency on a transnational flow of low-wage labor migration from Mexico and Central America, and compounds social and housing problems that affect migrants. The tobacco industry's transition is an exemplary case of biocapitalism, a strategic merger of economic, ethical, and public health values that mirrors trends in the pharmaceutical industry. Analyzing social dynamics of stigmatization in light of health-driven production models, I show how the involvement of a private firm in regulatory politics builds on uneven social and economic conditions among people who manage and work on tobacco farms. This study expands the scope of tobacco's public health picture beyond a narrow focus on consumer health to include important social and health problems related to commercial leaf production. [tobacco, cigarettes, smoking, corporate social responsibility, agriculture, farm labor, stigma, biocapitalism, North Carolina]

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