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A Doctor’s 932,000-Pound Tobacco Habit

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Dr. Edward Floyd holds a scalpel in his blood-spattered glove. He is performing a routine breast biopsy and has come across an unexpected abscess.

Unperturbed, Floyd methodically drains it, removes the suspect tissue for testing and cauterizes the seeping vessels. The smell of seared flesh lingers in the air.

In 33 years, Floyd has earned respect in his specialty, vascular surgery. He has dedicated his life to improving medical care in his home area and to treating smoking-related illnesses.

Along the way, he has also acquired vast holdings in tobacco --so large that few American physicians, if any, hold more.

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Floyd and his wife have more than 932,000 pounds of tobacco allotment in South Carolina, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture records. That’s enough to make 26.3 million packs of cigarettes a year.

Much of the tobacco he inherited. The rest he rented or purchased, some within the last year. His income from the leaf is “substantial,” he says, but declines to provide a dollar figure.

How did Floyd become such a big player in two seemingly contradictory fields? The answer is simple: They’re both in his blood.

When it came time for Floyd to choose his path in life, he had two proud family traditions from which to draw.

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His mother’s people were the doctors. His great-uncle founded the Florence hospital where Floyd practices. The tobacco comes from his father’s side, the roots going back four generations.

Floyd cannot divide the two halves of his identity.

Tobacco, he says, “holds our community here together. . . . It’s a way of life.”

Floyd’s father and three uncles owned a tobacco warehouse in nearby Lake City. As a child, he worked for Imperial Tobacco Inc. as a “pull boy,” walking behind the buyers and sampling leaf from the bottom of the bales to make sure no one could sneak in inferior tobacco.

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Medicine eventually drew him, and he began to see another side of tobacco. It was during his surgical residency that the first serious debates about smoking’s health risks were taking place. But one of his mentors, an eminent surgeon, had an interesting spin on the topic.

“His theory was tobacco was good for you” because smoking led to weight loss, Floyd recalls, his patrician drawl swallowed up by laughter. “I said, ‘Oh, goodness, you’d be a hit . . . in South Carolina. You’d really be popular.’ ”

Floyd has no illusions today about the effects of tobacco use.

While performing the breast biopsy, Floyd talks of being nominated for an industry group’s list of the 50 “most positive” doctors in the country. A writer spent several days with him, snapping pictures at work and at home.

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A few days later, the writer called back. There was a problem.

“He said, ‘You know, the AMA and all these people are against tobacco, and with you being a tobacco farmer we’re kind of concerned about that,’ ” Floyd says. “I told him I was not ashamed of being a tobacco farmer.”

But the surgeon becomes suddenly quiet when asked how his tobacco cultivation squares with his professional oath not to do anything that would cause harm.

“You know, I just never have thought about it in those terms,” he says, his normally strong baritone barely audible over the whirring and beeping of medical equipment. “When your entire life you’ve been involved with something, you see a lot of good things that happen with the families.”

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For Floyd, being a doctor and growing tobacco have both been ways to help his neighbors.

Last year, the federal government reduced the amount of leaf that South Carolina farmers could grow by 17%. That’s why, Floyd says, he has been buying up tobacco allotments: to ensure that the people he farms with maintain their poundage.

“They’re just good, solid, hard-working, honest people that I’ve worked with for years, 20-plus years, most of them,” he says. “They’re just like family.”

Many of Floyd’s employees are the daughters and wives of the people he farms with. Secretary Anne Graham says her first memory is of her father placing her atop the horse he used to haul tobacco from the fields.

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“That was baby-sitting for me,” she says.

Vickie Pigate, a nurse in the office, worked tobacco as a child, and she warmly describes her 8-year-old daughter’s work. The girl had just spent an early June day in the tobacco fields “suckering"--pinching off the shoots that would otherwise stunt the young plants.

“She was so proud of her little sticky fingers,” Pigate says.

Floyd knows that tobacco is a health risk, but it’s a legal crop. Growing it may hurt his patients; not growing it would hurt his friends.

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“If I could wave a wand and do away with tobacco, that would suit me fine,” the doctor says. “I really believe that if all of us could get out, get out of it, most of the people would be happy.”


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