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The plants stand tall and beefy in the August haze on fields worked for 400 years by machete and sweat. Servants, then slaves, then hired hands have coaxed floppy tobacco leaves from this Chesapeake soil.

Even with suburbs pressing in and tobacco under assault in Washington less than 15 miles away, that "bewitching vegetable" still carpets the land."I've been thinking about giving it up some day," Paul Goddard says of his crop. But switching from lucrative tobacco can be as hard as kicking a pack-a-day habit.

It has long been that way for a leaf loved and hated across time.

The world has hungered for North American tobacco since precolonial European traders discovered its use among natives of the New World.

Tobacco helped finance the American revolution, became a symbol of women's emancipation and gained such a reputation as a cure-all in the 1500s and 1600s that doctors blew smoke into patients' intestines with bellows.

Generations have become "bound in aromatic chains" as a writer put it ages before Washington bureaucrats began dryly debating nicotine's addictive properties.

"This herbe, or rather weede, seemeth not voide of venome and thereby seemeth an enemy to the life of man," a critic said some 360 years before the U.S. surgeion general linked tobacco to fatal disease.

A 17th century Turkish ruler was said to have beheaded subjects caught with tobacco, his way of saying Thank You for Not Smoking. These days, smokers might feel they've lost their heads, so socially and medically unacceptable has smoking become.

Places to light up shrink by the week, and the Food and Drug Administration is weighing whether it can regulate cigarettes and take so much nicotine out of them they would lose their grip on the smoker.

For all their gains-- among them the warning labels on packs, the 1971 ban on TV and radio advertising, smoking bans in many buildings --tobacco foes still face a huge enterprise that pumps $50 billion or more into the economy.

Despite a 20 percent drop in production over 20 years, the U.S. tobacco industry leads the world in exports, remains a pillar of agriculture and markets aggressively for customers -- spending almost $ 4 billion in 1990 for promotion and advertising.

The anti-smoking clatter has been greeted like the buzz of locusts on the farms of Maryland, where tobacco was the main cash crop from the 1600s to the 1980s, when fruits and vegetables surpassed it.

Tobacco is a tough plant, says Goddard, who farms 25 acres of it with his brother. "It will wait for the rain." Not like the finicky tomatoes that swell and split with too much water or languish with too little.

Still grown mainly on small family farms, tobacco promises a decent payoff for people who can stand the backbreaking work-- the flashing of knives and spearing of plants in a harvest-by-hand little changed from the old days.

The yield is astronomically higher than for most crops --in 1992, farm receipts for tobacco averaged $3,890 per acre compared with $200 per acre of corn and soybeans.

But it's clear Goddard, a non-smoker, prefers days like this one, selling green beans, onions and cantaloupes almost as big as basketballs at a stand stuffed with produce from his non-tobacco acreage.

"Sometimes you have mixed emotions, you really do," he says. "Nobody takes a gun to their heads and makes them smoke it. But I know what the doctors are saying."

Ambivalence has been a hallmark of tobacco. It is evident not only among some growers but among governments that nag people to quit while supporting tobacco prices, making tobacco loans and reaping tobacco taxes-- more than $11 billion worth in 1992 for Washington, the states and communities.

Plenty of smokers, of course, have also been torn. In a 1915 Penn State publication, G.L. Hemminger argued both sides:

"Tobacco is a dirty weed. I like it.

It satisfies no normal need. I like it.

It makes you thin, it makes you lean, it takes the hair right off your bean.

It's the worst darn stuff I've ever seen.

I like it." Playful ditties have had little place in the debate since the 1964 surgeon general's report tied smoking to lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema.

Studies since have expanded the maladies attributed to tobacco, and a 1986 surgeon general's report set off a wave of smoking restrictions by declaring secondhand smoke as a hazard.

"Tobacco is as American as apple pie," says John Banzhaf, head of the Washington-based Action on Smoking and Health.

"We've had a long history with it. We also had a long history with slavery. It doesn't mean we should honor or preserve it."

Tobacco was shipped to Europe in the 1500s and became an export staple of southern colonies when the British began establishing permanent settlements in 1607.

"Tobacco commanded such a leading place in Maryland's colonial economy that it became a medium of exchange," Alan Virta wrote in a history of Prince George's County.

"Taxes were assessed, debts paid and land priced not in pounds sterling but in pounds of tobacco."

More widely, tobacco "guaranteed the permanence of the Virginia settlement; created the pattern of the Southern plantation; encouraged the introduction of Negro slavery, then softened the institution," historian Joseph C. Robert wrote.

It also claimed untold millions of lives along the way, the weight of modern science says.> Smoking is blamed in the deaths of 3 million people a year around the world, including more than 400,000 Americans.

In times of superstition and quackery, tobacco was a supposed master remedy-- deeply inhaled to cure a cough, taken up the nostrils to counter delirium, blown into the intestines for internal ailments.> "It is good for scurvy, for weake cold stomakes...for grosse and soggy bodies," Roger Marbecke of London wrote in the 1602 book "A Defence of Tabacco," on tile in a Washington library.

But claims of tobacco's benign --if not beneficial-- effects have continued much of this century alongside the increasingly insistent chorus to the contrary.

Since the 1964 surgeon general's report, they've fought to quit, sometimes winning, often losing, but cutting cigarette consumption overall even as smoking increases worldwide.

Now 25.7 percent of adult Americans smoke, down from 40 percent in 1965.

A few miles from Goddard's farm, Phil Miller pinches off a tender shoot froma shoulder-high plant on 10 acres of tobacco, part of a 300-acre spread of mixed crops.

Across the Potomac, anti-smoking politicians work to ensure tobacco's tumble from respectability is not just another dry spell in a historical cycle.

It's a tough job because tobacco is a tough plant. It can wait for the rain.


Additional Information

The history of tobacco

1492: Diary entry by Christopher Columbus records the gift of strange dry leaves from a native from San Salvador.

1500s: Tobacco crosses the Atlantic to Europe and becomes popular for recreational and medical uses.> 1560: Jean Nicot, French Ambassador to Portugal, writes about tobacco's curative powers. His name is later taken as the basis for nicotine, the poisonous liquid alkaloid of the tobacco leaf.

1604: King James I issues a "Counterblaste to Tobacco," calling it a loathsome custom.

1600s: John Rolfe plants a commercial tobacco crop in Jamestown in 1612, and the Virginia settlement quickly becomes a center for trade. Tobacco cultivation spreads through colonies.

1664-66: During the Great Plague, British schoolchildren are required to smoke pipe tobacco to ward off disease.

1600s-1700s: Britain takes firm control of colonial exports, heightening pre-Revolution tensions. Planters move west to Ohio. Large plantations spring up, an impetus for the use of slaves.

1881: Virginian James Bonsack patents cigarette-making machine capable of making 120,000 a day.

1890s: Legislative campaign against smoking begins, leading to scattered prohibitions on selling tobacco, widespread ban on selling to minors and an enthusiastic anti-smoking movement that petered out in World war I.

1918: U.S. War Department includes tobacco in soldiers' rations.

1920: Cigarette sales reach 1 billion a year.

1940s-1950s: U.S. cigarettes accepted as currency after World War II "from Paris to Peking." Health concerns intensify in 1950s.

1964: Surgeon General Luther Terry links tobacco to cancer, heart disease and other serious ailments.

1966: Warning labels required on packs.

1971: Ban on radio and TV cigarette ads takes effect.

1986: Surgeon general says secondhand smoke is dangerous.

1988-1990: Smoking banned on flights lasting two hours or less, then six hours of less.

1993: Environmental Protection Agency finds secondhand smoke a health hazard.