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USA: Anti-smoking Measures Gain in Tobacco Country

by David M. HalbfingerNew York Times
March 4th, 2003

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 enemies.

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 are smokers.

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 cigarette manufacturers.

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 groups.

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 tobacco prices.

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 now."





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