Remembering The Mouse House

Winston-Salem, N.C. is proud of its history-its 18th and 19th-century history that is. Winston’s is also extremely proud of its transition from a tobacco and textile manufacturing town, to its reincarnation as the so-called, “City of Arts and Innovation.” There’s a feeling in Winston that the past is in the past, but the past is always present. You just have to know where to look for it.

Winston’s history is intertwined with R.J. Reynolds’ Tobacco, like the city’s name itself. For many decades Winston-Salem was the Camel City. The city that many of us know and love is synonymous with cigarettes; the most deadly consumer product that man has ever invented.

Winston is so proud of reinventing itself, that it rarely mention’s its Tobacco past. When folks go to the Innovation Quarter today, they marvel at Winston’s post-Tobacco development, the conversion of what’s left of RJR’s once vast network of factories into luxury lofts, classrooms, and hi-tech workspaces.

Little attention is given to the fact that Winston is still the home of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and Womble Carlyle, the law firm that represents Reynolds. In mid-July, British American Tobacco’s acquisition of Reynolds will be complete. Winston’s most storied and infamous company will become part of BAT, a company that shamelessly peddles tobacco around the globe.

As BAT’s acquisition of Reynolds approaches, it’s a good time to look back at Reynolds’ past and question whether Winston wants to keep participating in the distribution of the world’s most deadly consumer product. There are reminders of Reynolds’ past all around Winston. And there are several good books on Reynolds (Barbarians at the Gate, etc) that make its past accessible to the general reader.

There are also a lot of good documentaries on Big Tobacco, Merchants of Doubt is my personal favorite. Another great documentary series is the Tobacco Wars.  While watching the Tobacco Wars, Episode 2 on Youtube, I first learned about the Reynolds’ infamous “Mouse House.” Then while reading, Lost Empire: The Fall of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, I learned where RJR’s infamous “Mouse House” was located. It was at the corner of Chestnut and Belews Streets (Belews Street was later renamed Technology Way).

The Mouse House was a small research facility where Reynolds conducted research on the connection between smoking and disease. Still smarting from the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s Report, Reynolds refused to admit that its cigarettes caused cancer. To this end, Reynolds did smoking experiments on mice in the basement of the Mouse House. The hooked the poor mice up to smoking machines to see if their tiny lungs would develop emphysema.

Predictably, the mice developed emphysema and other illnesses. That was bad for the mice. Unfortunately for the researchers involved, Reynolds’ corporate and legal managers got wind of the research being done at the Mouse House. They were concerned that their researchers were inadvertently proving the deadly and defective nature of their product. Reynolds had an obligation to share its research finding with the public.

But instead of owning up to its culpability and transitioning into a non-cigarette company, Reynolds shut the whole thing down and suppressed its findings. On March 19, 1970, the researchers were fired and the Mouse House was closed. Much of what we know today about the Mouse House is due to the outspokenness of Joseph E. Bumgarner, a Reynolds biosciences researcher turned whistle-blower. The Mouse House is an obvious example of corporate greed and disregard for public safety.

It’s part of a vast conspiracy on the part of Reynolds and other members of Big Tobacco to keep the American public from knowing the dangers of cigarette smoking. Reynolds, Philip Morris, and Lorillard knew that their products were killing their customers, yet they continued to lie and deceive the American public for decades. This is part of Winston’s history that we all have to acknowledge and wrestle with.

Tobacco isn’t just another product. It’s a product that kills nearly 500,000 people in the U.S. each year. Smoking rates continue to decline among the college-educated and relatively well-off. But smoking rates have remained steady amongst the poor and people of color. That’s who Reynolds’ and BAT are focusing on with their Newport cigarettes.

The Mouse House is long-gone, but it remains relevant in Winston today as long as Winston is a center of tobacco marketing and distribution.

 

Screenshot of the Mouse House, from Tobacco Wars, Episode 2
Today a parking lot is all that remains of the site of RJR’s former Mouse House.

 

 

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