Breaking the federal tobacco habit

The federal tobacco program, with all its profits for a favored few, is on the run. Even if it survives this week's testing time in the House, opponents are determined as never before to continue the momentum against it.

Tobacco farmers would be wise to consider shifting to crops that researchers suggest are no less lucrative strawberries, apples, tomatoes if the farmers do not want to risk growing tobacco under free market conditions. Yet the same researchers project that the end of the federal program might actually lead to expanded total production.

The key to reducing the use of tobacco would still lie in individual decisions against dependency on it. But at least, with elimination of the tobacco program, the government would not be lined up on the side of a substance it is committed against as a serious health hazard. The American taxpayer would not be subsidizing this product out of one pocket and campaigns against it out of another, while paying for the billions of dollars of economic losses attributed to the health effects of tobacco. And the free-enterprise Reagan administration would not be in the position of shelling out government money to interfere with the operation of the marketplace for the production of a poisonous plant while cutting back government funds for constructive purposes.

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Much is made of the small outlays for the tobacco program over the years relative to other commodity supports. Only-only?-$57 million in loses on price-support loans since the program started in 1933. Even the subsidizing of interest on the loans adds up to only an estimated $600 million to $1 billion over that time. But the program's admistration alone costs $15 million a year. And any amount is really too much when the government is underwriting a nation's bad habit.

But the loans are part of the program that would be ended under an amendment that the House was scheduled to vote on yesterday afternoon or today. The other part is the system of allotments that began under the New Deal and that still limits the areas for tobacco growing. There are some 500,000 of them of between one acre and 3 1/4 acres. The owners of the allotments are not necessarily the tobacco planters; they are often not farmers but renters who get $800 to $1,000 an acre for tobacco-allotment land where they would get only perhaps $ 60 for land to be planted with soybeans. These allotment holders would find their land suddenly less valuable if the allotments were ended. Many of them are North Carolina constituents of Sen. Jesse Helms, a leading defender of the tobacco program.

Senator Helms helped to defeat amendments such as the House's Shamansky-Pritchard amendment when they were offered to the farm bill passed by the Senate. He would marshal strong forces against any such amendment surviving the House and going into the House-Senate conference committee. But there are other Republican senators, notably Mark Hatfield, who are committed against the program. Encouraged by the degree of support won by Representatives Shammansky and Pritchard, such senators are expected to pursue the war in some form whatever the outcome of particular battles.

The success of the House in attacking the sugar and peanut programs also lends impetus to moves against one that has no more to recommend it economically and is not even supporting a food but a poison. Indeed, unlike other commodity legislation, the tobacco program does not provide for regular review. One more reason for going to the source and getting rid of the program itself.

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