Thomas Green Clemson probably never saw this coming.
The institution he founded to help farmers in one of the nation’s biggest tobacco-producing states is considering a total ban on products derived from the leaf that made the Carolinas famous.
That means not only no smoking, dipping or chewing, but no e-cigarettes, even outside, anywhere.
The Board of Trustees hasn’t discussed it yet, but a task force that includes student, faculty and staff leaders has been ruminating over such a policy to present to the board, said Chairman David Wilkins.
Naturally, some people are fuming about it.
A survey of undergraduate students found that 60 percent opposed it. Student leaders said some students think the proposed policy is too severe and others see it as an infringement of rights.
Graduate student government passed a resolution in support of the proposal, according to Simon Li, graduate student body president.
Faculty members are generally in favor but with some reservations for how the nicotine-addicted among them would handle it, according to outgoing Faculty Senate President Kelly Smith.
“We talked about it for quite a while on campus, and my worry is that whatever policy you adopt, I really think you need to be very careful to make sure it’s a humane policy, particularly to people who use tobacco products,” he said.
University officials didn’t release a draft of the proposal requested by The Greenville News, and students participating on the task force who spoke openly about it before a task force meeting last week later asked that they not be quoted.
“The new policy is still being developed as we continue to gather input from constituents,” Clemson spokeswoman Cathy Sams said. “The task force hopes to have a proposal for the administration to consider soon.”
Clemson has no choice but to take some kind of action, according to Trustee Ronnie Lee. Lee, a dentist, and J.J. Britton, a gynocologist, are representing the board on the task force.
“There’s a state statute that trustees are charged with responsibility of having a smoking policy,” Lee told The Greenville News. “The point we’re at now is comparing ourselves with the two other major research institutions in the state that have tobacco policies.
“Clemson does not, so we’re kind of lagging behind.”
The university does have a policy against smoking in buildings and within a few feet outside of buildings but nothing that covers the entire campus.
The University of South Carolina and the Medical University of South Carolina both have banned all tobacco use on campus, with USC’s policy going into effect this Jaunary.
USC President Harris Pastides said when the ban was announced that it would be “enforced in a gentle way.”
“This isn’t about how many people we catch,” he said. “It’s about how many behaviors we could change.”
The city of Charleston’s Medical District is also a smoke-free area, according to MUSC.
“MUSC also discourages the use of tobacco products by staff or visitors on properties adjacent to the campus,” its policy says.
Bruce Fortnum, who spent 35 years researching diseases of the tobacco plant at Clemson’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence, has no qualms with the university outlawing the crop he spent most of his life improving.
“That’s certainly a trend in society,” he said.
He doesn’t think it would have much impact, since the institution is virtually smoke-free already.
“When I walk across the Clemson campus, the number of people I see smoking is dramatically reduced from what it would have been 30 years ago,” he said.
Fortnum retired last year and said he will probably be Clemson’s last full-time tobacco pathologist.
Clemson founded the Pee Dee station in 1911 to introduce tobacco to local farmers, he said. “It supported the whole Pee Dee region for almost 100 years.”
The leaf the Carolinas are famous for may be on its way out of favor here, but it is still in high demand overseas, he said, where it is used to add flavor to foreign-grown tobacco.
“We produce tobacco at almost sea level, and we have very hot and humid nights, and as a consequence we produce a highly aromatic tobacco,” he said. “No doubt, it is the best in the world as far as smoking ability.”
Fortnum, a non-smoker, said his work with tobacco is applicable to other plants of the same family — tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.
Even though it is waning as a cash crop in the state, Pee Dee tobacco growers still harvested 14,000 acres of bright leaf in 2013 worth $60 million. That was enough to rank the state No. 4 in the nation in tobacco production.
Nicotiana tabacum remains the most lucrative crop by acre in the state, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
That’s a big drop since the early 1990s, when the state’s farmers produced $200 million worth of the golden leaf on 60,000 acres.