Tobacco industry workers manufacture cigars, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, smoking tobacco, and snuff from leaf tobacco. They dry, cure, age, cut, roll, form, and package tobacco in products used by millions of people in the United States and in other countries around the world.
History of Tobacco Industry Worker Career
The use of tobacco has been traced back to Mayan cultures of nearly 2,000 years ago. As the Mayas moved north, through Central America and into North America, tobacco use spread throughout the continent. When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, he was introduced to tobacco smoking by the Arawak tribe, who smoked the leaves of the plant rolled into cigars. Tobacco seeds were brought back to Europe, where they were cultivated. The Europeans, believing tobacco had medicinal properties, quickly adopted the practice of smoking. Sir Walter Raleigh popularized pipe smoking around 1586, and soon the growing and use of tobacco spread around the world.
Tobacco growing became an important economic activity in America beginning in the colonial era, in part because of the ideal growing conditions found in many of the Southern and Southeastern colonies. Tobacco quickly became a vital part of the colonies’ international trade.
Tobacco use remained largely limited to small per-person quantities until the development of cigarettes in the mid-1800s. The invention of the cigarette-making machine in 1881 made the mass production of cigarettes possible. Nevertheless, the average person smoked only 40 cigarettes per year. It was only in the early decades of the 20th century that cigarette consumption, spurred by advertising campaigns, became popular across the country. Soon, the average person smoked up to 40 cigarettes per day.
By the 1960s, it became increasingly apparent that tobacco use was detrimental to people’s health. In 1969, laws were passed requiring warning labels to be placed on all tobacco products. During the 1970s, increasing agitation by the antismoking movement led to laws, taxes, and other regulations being placed on the sale and use of tobacco products. Many other countries followed with similar laws and regulations. The number of smokers dropped by as much as 30 percent, and those who still smoked, smoked less. In response, the tobacco industry introduced products such as light cigarettes and low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes. In the late 1990s, the tobacco industry was at the center of debate, controversy, and subsequent state lawsuits over addictive substances and cancer-causing agents contained in cigarettes. This controversy and the declining numbers of smokers in the United States and much of the West have had a strong impact on the employment levels in the tobacco industry.
The Job of Tobacco Industry Workers
Various kinds of tobacco plants are cultivated for use in tobacco products. After harvesting, the different types of tobacco are processed in different ways. Using one method or another, all tobacco is cured, or dried, for several days to a month or more in order to change its physical and chemical characteristics. Farmers sometimes air-cure tobacco by hanging it in barns to dry naturally. Other curing methods are fire-curing in barns with open fires and flue-curing in barns with flues that circulate heat. Some tobacco is suncured by drying it outdoors in the sun.
Cured tobacco is auctioned to tobacco product manufacturers or other dealers. The first step in the manufacturing process is separating out stems, midribs of leaves, and foreign matter. Usually this is done by workers who feed the tobacco into machines. Once stemmed, the tobacco is dried again by redrying-machine operators, who use machines with hot-air blowers and fans.
The tobacco is then packed for aging. In preparation for packing, workers may adjust the moisture content of the dry tobacco by steaming the leaves or wetting them down with water. The tobacco is prized, or packed, into large barrels or cases that can hold about a thousand pounds of tobacco each. Workers, including bulkers, prizers, and hydraulic-press operators, pack the containers, which go to warehouses to be aged. The aging process, which may take up to two years, alters the aroma and flavor of the tobacco. After it is aged, workers take the tobacco to factories, where it is removed from the containers.
The tobacco is further conditioned by adding moisture. Blenders then select tobacco of various grades and kinds to produce blends with specific characteristics or for specific products, such as cigars or snuff. They place the tobacco on conveyors headed for processing. Blending laborers replenish supplies of the different tobaccos for the blending line. Blending-line attendants tend the conveyors and machines that mix the specified blends.
Some tobacco is flavored using casing fluids, which are water-soluble mixtures. Casing-material weighers, casing-machine operators, wringer operators, casing cookers, and casing-fluid tenders participate in this flavoring process by preparing the casing material, saturating the tobacco with it, and removing excess fluid before further processing.
The tobacco is ready to be cut into pieces of the correct size. Tobacco for cigars and cigarettes is shredded and cleaned in machines operated by machine filler shredders and strip-cutting-machine operators. Snuff grinders and snuff screeners tend machines that pulverize chopped tobacco into snuff and sift it through screens to remove oversized particles. Riddler operators tend screening devices that separate coarse pieces of tobacco from cut tobacco.
Once cut, the tobacco is made into salable products. Cigarettes are made by machines that wrap shredded tobacco and filters with papers. Workers feed these machines, make the filters, and run the machines, which also print the company’s name and insignia on the rolling papers.
Cigar making is similar, except that the filler tobacco is wrapped in tobacco leaf instead of paper. The filler is held together and formed into a bunch in a binder leaf, and the bunch is rolled in a spiral in a wrapper leaf. Various workers sort and count appropriate wrapper leaves and binder leaves. They roll filler tobacco and binder leaves into bunches by hand or using machines. The bunches are pressed into cigar-shaped molds, and bunch trimmers trim excess tobacco from the molds before the bunches are wrapped.
Other workers operate machines that automatically form and wrap cigars. They include auto rollers and wrapper layers, who wrap bunches with sheet tobacco or wrapper leaves. Some workers wrap bunches by hand. Cigar-head piercers use machines to pierce draft holes in the cigar ends. Some cigars are pressed into a square shape by tray fillers and press-machine feeders before they are packaged in cigar bands and cellophane. Patch workers repair defective or damaged cigars by patching holes with pieces of wrapper leaf.
Some tobacco is made into other products, such as plugs, lumps, and twists. These products are chewed instead of smoked. Twists and some plugs may be made by hand, while most plugs and lumps are made by machine. The machines slice, mold, press, and wrap the tobacco, and various workers are responsible for feeding, regulating, and cleaning the machines.
Many workers are employed in packaging the manufactured tobacco products. Cigar packers, hand banders, machine banders, and cellophaners package cigars. Cigar banders stamp trademarks on cigar wrappers. Cigarette-packing- machine operators pack cigarette packs into cartons. Case packers and sealers pack the cartons into cases and seal them. Other workers pack snuff, chewing tobacco, and other products into cartons, tins, and other packaging. Snuff-box finishers glue covers and labels on boxes of snuff.
Finally, tobacco inspectors check that the products and their packaging meet quality standards, removing items that are defective. The industry also employs a variety of workers to maintain equipment; load, unload, and distribute materials; prepare tobacco for the different stages of processing; salvage defective items for reclamation; and maintain records of tobacco bought and sold.
Tobacco Industry Worker Career Requirements
The minimum requirement for all tobacco workers is a high school diploma. Maintenance and mechanical workers often need to be high school graduates with machine maintenance skills or experience. They may need to learn additional skills on the job.
Workers such as tobacco buyers or graders who must judge tobacco based on its smell, feel, and appearance usually need at least several years’ experience working with tobacco to become familiar with its characteristics. Most tobacco products industry workers are members of the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers’ International Union.
Part-time or seasonal tobacco processing jobs may be available for people who are interested in this field. Some plants where tobacco products are manufactured may allow visitors to observe their operations.
Most jobs in this industry are located in factories close to tobacco-growing regions, especially in the South and Southeast. Most cigarette factories are in North Carolina and Virginia. Many cigar factories are in Florida and Pennsylvania.
Job seekers should apply in person at local tobacco products factories that may be hiring new workers. Leads for specific job openings may be located through the local offices of the state employment service and through union locals. Newspaper classified ads may also carry listings of available jobs.
In the tobacco products industry, advancement is related to increased skills. Machine operators may advance by learning how to run more complex equipment. Experienced workers may be promoted to supervisory positions. With sufficient knowledge and experience, some production workers may eventually become tobacco buyers for manufacturers or tobacco graders with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Wages for tobacco production workers are generally higher than for most other producers of consumable goods. Earnings vary considerably with the plant and the workers’ job skills and responsibilities.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, median annual earnings of food and tobacco roasting, baking, and drying machine operators and tenders were $23,230 in 2005. Salaries ranged from $14,920 to more than $38,890. Packaging and filling machine operators and tenders had median earnings of $22,930, and inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers had median earnings of $29,200.
Tobacco products workers usually receive benefits that include health and life insurance, paid holiday and vacation days, profit-sharing plans, pension plans, and various disability benefits.
In most plants, worker comfort and efficiency are important concerns. Work areas are usually clean, well lighted, and pleasantly air-conditioned. Manufacturing processes are automated wherever possible, and the equipment is designed with safety and comfort in mind. On the downside, much of the work is highly repetitive, and people can find their work very monotonous. Also, tobacco has a strong smell that bothers some people. Some stages of processing produce large quantities of tobacco dust.
Tobacco Industry Worker Career Outlook
Employment in the tobacco industry has decreased in recent decades, mainly the result of increased automation in manufacturing processes. Manufacturers have also cut back operations due to declining domestic sales and the increasing number of health-related lawsuits. However, while Americans are generally using less tobacco, exports of American-made tobacco products are increasing, especially to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The U.S. tobacco industry is primarily located in the southeastern states of North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Most future demand for workers in this industry will probably be because of a need to replace workers who have moved to other jobs or left the workforce entirely.