During the last 10 days alone, an estimated 12,000 U.S. civilians were killed, and about 3,200 Brits. But it had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden or the threat of terrorism.

These little noted deaths are linked to a biological agent often produced in North Carolina and sold legally all over the world. During the same period, this stealth killer claimed 100,000 victims worldwide. The culprit is tobacco, wreaking its own brand of mass destruction right under our noses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, cigarette smoking is linked to 440,000 deaths a year in the United States alone. That’s eight times the number of Americans killed during the entire Vietnam War, and more lives lost than in all of the battles the U.S. fought in the 20th century.

When a small group of idealistic journalists launched The Independent 20 years ago, one of our goals was to start telling the truth about tobacco. Never mind that the golden leaf was then the No. 1 cash crop in North Carolina. We thought it was time to stare down a sacred cow.

It wasn’t that we didn’t care about the storied importance of tobacco to the state economy. We thought elected officials should start considering alternative revenue sources, especially for small tobacco farmers, who would be left holding huge bills as cigarette smoking continued to decline.

In “Dead End on Tobacco Road” (June 1983), I reported that the cigarette industry had already begun taking care of itself by diversifying with new products (food and liquor), growing tobacco more cheaply in places like Zimbabwe and Brazil, and finding new customers in countries that didn’t require warning labels on cigarettes.

How could the government justify keeping cigarette taxes low, we asked, to protect the very industry that made it necessary to spend millions on anti-smoking messages?

Life on the flue-cure beat was also lonely. Few news outlets were interested in exploring North Carolina’s co-dependent relationship with tobacco. One local newspaper even dropped a Doonesbury cartoon that focused on the radical notion that cigarettes could be hazardous to your health.

Covering tobacco meant plenty of Alice in Wonderland moments. I once conducted a series of interviews with state tobacco lobbyists to learn more about their personal smoking habits. One pleasant state official kept offering me cigarettes from a stash he kept in his desk drawer, though I explained that I didn’t smoke. Another confided that he had given up smoking due to “doctor’s orders.” And a nonprofit lobbyist for tobacco farmers chain-smoked throughout our interview while emphasizing that he had not cut back on his habit. Not long afterward, he died from lung cancer.

During The Independent‘s first year, Gov. Jim Hunt, a non-smoker raised on a tobacco farm, worked to defeat a bill requiring tougher warning labels on cigarette packs. He said, long after the U.S. Surgeon General’s dire report, that the legislation’s language was “not justified by facts and findings.”

That was 1983, when it would have been political suicide for a North Carolina governor to tackle the tobacco industry. Thirteen years later, long after R.J. Reynolds cigarettes were composed largely of foreign tobacco, Hunt was still defending the industry at all costs.

And The Independent was still on the beat. In his article, “Why Jim Hunt Can’t Kick the Tobacco Habit” (Sept. 1996), Barry Yeoman wrote of the governor: “He has threatened to sue the federal government to stop FDA’s anti-teen smoking efforts. And he has never publicly considered how many citizens–or even how many farmers–might suffer from his actions.”

Has The Independent made any difference after 20 years of telling the truth about tobacco? That’s hard to measure, and I get depressed whenever I try. While smoking has declined significantly in North Carolina and nationwide (we certainly can’t take credit for that), it is still responsible for more fatalities than AIDS, drunk driving, cocaine and handguns combined, all social issues that attract considerably more headlines than the hazards of smoking. Cigarette smoking costs Americans more than $75 billion a year in medical care–about the same price that Bush put on “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Still, lots of things have changed. You can’t smoke in most offices anymore. Just this year the General Assembly banned smoking in the legislative chamber. (Forty-three legislators opposed the ban, including a former R.J. Reynolds executive.)

Most recently, Gov. Easley’s health director prepared a report showing that raising tobacco taxes would reduce smoking, information that is being used now to support a bill that would hike the cigarette tax. And Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue announced a $1.2 million radio advertising campaign to discourage teen tobacco use.

As The Independent predicted, cigarette companies are prospering (and cancer is increasing) in overseas markets, while domestic tobacco farmers are going broke. For two days in March, just before the war began and the nation was gripped by a fear of terrorism, a frustrated N.C. tobacco farmer grabbed headlines when he parked his tractor in the heart of Washington, D.C., and hinted that he might have explosives.

Tobacco road is as surreal as ever. But now that North Carolina isn’t quite as addicted to nicotine as it was 20 years ago, it’s less hazardous to blow smoke at an aging sacred cow.

Dee Reid was associate editor of The Independent from 1983 to 1986, and a contributing writer until 1990.