LEXINGTON, Ky. --The tobacco patches that cover the
hilltops near here are dusted with snow, their sheds locked up till the
spring thaw. But what is occupying farmers and politicians across
Kentucky, the Carolinas and the rest of tobacco country seems as improbable as a
blizzard in August.
Governors, lawmakers and even chambers of commerce are calling for
increases in cigarette taxes not only to close gaping state budget
deficits, but also to help prevent smoking. In state capitols and
county courthouses, bans on smoking that were unthinkable a year or two ago
are being enacted every few days.
In short, a seismic political shift that was a decade in the making is
toppling old alliances and redrawing the landscape of tobacco country.
Besieged growers, their yearly quotas cut by half or more, have
switched allegiances and are shunning the cigarette manufacturers who now buy as
much or more tobacco from foreign farmers. Instead, the growers are
turning for aid to the very antismoking advocates they once saw as mortal
Now, public health groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids are
lobbying Congress for a $16 billion buyout for tobacco farmers in
exchange for the farmers' support of the regulation of cigarettes by the Food
and Drug Administration. As a result, efforts at local and state levels to
curb smoking are encountering less and less resistance.
"I've been in these wars since 1990," said Anthony J. DeLucia,
a professor at East Tennessee State University who is the chairman of the American
Lung Association. "It used to be the health groups would parade up
somebody with emphysema or cancer, and the tobacco industry would have the farmer.
We'd use these human shields in our arguments, as symbols. But the tobacco
industry can't jerk the chain on the tobacco farmers like they used to,
because the farmers have realized that the industry would love to just
move everything overseas, where they can pay a next-to-nothing wage and
spray any pesticide they want."
For their part, farmers say they see little point in putting up much of
a fight anymore and are more interested in winning a federal buyout that
will let growers leave the business with at least their dignity intact.
"Once you stand in front of a tractor-trailer truck and get run over two or
three times, it gets more difficult to stand in front of it again," said
Jimmy Hill, a grower in Kinston, N.C.
With farmers largely sitting out the debate, antismoking legislation is
sweeping the Southeast.
Here in Lexington, the Fayette County Board of Health voted unanimously
on Feb. 10 to draft a smoking ban for bars and restaurants. It would be
the first such prohibition anywhere in Kentucky, where farmers in 119 out
of 120 counties make this the most tobacco-dependent state in the nation
and where a nation-leading 3 in 10 adults and 4 in 10 high school students
On Feb. 3, just outside Winston-Salem in the heart of North Carolina's
tobacco belt, Yadkin County commissioners banned smoking in parts of
the courthouse. On Feb. 12, the state's House of Representatives in Raleigh
banned smoking in its chamber, a week after the Tennessee State Senate
did the same.
In South Carolina, Clemson University announced a ban on smoking in all
dormitories this month. On Feb. 24, organizers of a drive to outlaw
smoking in restaurants and bars in Charleston, the state's biggest tourist
destination and a onetime cigar-manufacturing center, drew the city's
mayor and 200 other people to a kickoff event, including a local trial lawyer
who donated $2 million to help.
A decade ago, farmers and the public health groups were bitter enemies.
The Depression-era program of quotas for tobacco production was constantly
under attack in Congress, and the antismoking lobby led by the American
Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the American
Cancer Society supported its abolition. But beginning in Virginia in 1994 and
in Kentucky in 1995, farmers and officials of the health groups met in
halting, initially contentious talks that did much to clear up
misconceptions on both sides.
"We became educated," said Amy Barkley, then a local tobacco
control advocate in Kentucky and now a coordinator for the Campaign for
Tobacco-Free Kids in five tobacco-producing states "the belly of
the beast," as she calls it.
"We learned that getting rid of the tobacco program didn't stop
one cigarette from being smoked, it just opened it up to lower prices,
which could mean the opposite," Ms. Barkley said. "We were sold on
the health benefit of quotas and price supports. So we dropped our opposition to
the program and then began defending it."
Growers, in turn, let the health groups know that just because they
raised tobacco did not mean they opposed any restrictions on its use. "I
have five grandchildren from 6 to 16 that's five reasons I don't want to see
young people smoking," said Mr. Hill, a nonsmoker who is a director of
the Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corporation, which
represents about 25,000 growers in five states.
Mr. Hill said members of his co-op at first thought their leaders were
crazy for talking to the health groups, but soon "saw that these
guys were more sensitive to the issues than our so-called friends," the
Since the mid-1990's, he said, flue-cured growers have lost 46 percent
of their quotas as cigarette makers are simply buying less domestic
tobacco.Will Snell, an agricultural economist at the University of Kentucky,
said burley leaf growers those who till the soil in the hilly terrain of
Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio had lost as much as 60
percent of their quotas in the same time. Consumption of tobacco has declined
slightly, Mr. Snell said, but the main reason for plummeting production
quotas is that cigarette makers are buying more and more overseas, in
countries like Brazil, Argentina and even Zimbabwe.
What began in secret in the mid-1990's has now come nearly to fruition
as tobacco growers are pushing for a federal buyout worth $15 billion to
$20 billion, and their strongest backing is coming from public health
A number of bills are on the table in Washington, backed not only by
influential Republicans from tobacco-producing states like Senators
Bill Frist of Tennessee and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, but also by
Democrats more concerned with health care, including Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. In broad strokes, the bills would pay $8 a pound to
owners of the quotas, and $4 per pound to actual growers, many of whom rent
quotas from owners for around 50 cents a pound. The quota system would be done
away with, though farmers are still hoping for a floor on domestic
For a grower with 100 acres in flue-cured tobacco country, the buyout
could mean a payment of $800,000; the owner of that much quota would get $1.6
million. Mr. Hill said the payments would allow farmers to "get out
of tobacco with some dignity."
Ideally, he said, it would also help those farmers who choose to stick
with tobacco compete with imported leaf: "You'd retire half the growers,
and by eliminating the quota as a cost of production, you'd lower the price of
American tobacco by 40 to 50 cents a pound."
Mr. Hill said tobacco farmers were merely bowing to the inevitable.
"In our Bible class, we've just started studying the Book of Daniel, and the
lesson's titled, `The Handwriting on the Wall,' " he said. "You
can't smoke in bars or office buildings, and the pressure is building. Matter of
fact, you've got to look to find a place you can smoke."
Much of the added pressure is coming on the price to consumers, in the
form of higher cigarette taxes. With state budget deficits soaring into the
billions, 20 states increased their excise taxes on tobacco last year,
among them Tennessee, the fifth-largest tobacco producing state, which
raised it to 20 cents a pack from 13 cents. This year, Tennessee is
considering another increase, and so, too, are lawmakers and governors
in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. Even the chambers
of commerce in North Carolina and Kentucky have come out for the first time
in favor of higher cigarette taxes.
Rosalind Kurita, a Tennessee state senator and a registered nurse who
recently won a ban on smoking in the Capitol, is also pushing to raise
the excise tax on cigarettes to 60 cents, close to the national average of
62 cents. "It's the right mechanism, the right message and the right
time," Ms. Kurita said. She said it would produce $187 million in sorely
needed revenue, help deter children and youths from taking up smoking and
indirectly help the state cut its soaring health care costs, since
smoking is the leading preventable cause of death.
That another tax increase was conceivable, let alone a likelihood, had
everything to do with the new way of seeing the tobacco industry in
tobacco country, Ms. Kurita said, as divided between farmers who deserve
sympathy and manufacturers who do not. "Big Tobacco is growing tobacco in
every country in the world," she said. "They will undercut my
Tennessee farmer in a heartbeat."
In Kentucky, the 3-cents-a-pack cigarette tax, the country's second
lowest, has not risen since 1970, and leading state lawmakers have killed a tax
increase in this year's short session. But lawmakers then stunned
antismoking advocates by saying they would support raising the tax to
47 cents in next year's session.
At a hearing in Frankfort on Feb. 4, even the dean of the University of
Kentucky's medical school, Dr. Emery A. Wilson, spoke for a tax
increase after 15 years of silence on tobacco control efforts. His voice
breaking, Dr. Wilson said he had held his tongue until then out of fear of
political retaliation from farmers and their representatives in the Legislature.
"At some point, we need to do more what is right than what is
politically expedient," he said. "None of us will win the Nobel Prize,
become president or do anything of real lasting significance in the world. Most likely what we do will be through our children. And one of the best things we could do would be to protect their health."
Of course, his remarks were not the profile in courage they might have
seemed at an earlier time. In an interview a day later, Dr. Wilson
acknowledged, "It's certainly safe for us to take that position
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