Postponing tobacco reckoning

An accord reached last week on Capitol Hill appears likely to postpone the day of reckoning for many American tobacco farmers. Since 1982, the tobacco support program has been financed by an ``assessment'' of so many cents per pound; Uncle Sam pays only the administrative costs. The assessment started at 3 cents a pound in 1982 and was to have been 40 cents in 1986. It has been bankrupting many farmers and pushing others into other crops -- or other jobs.

But last week, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina persuaded congressional negotiators to accept a change that sounds suspiciously like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

The cigarettemakers would split the burden of the assessment and also have a voice in establishing the total tobacco allotment. Up to now this has been set by the secretary of agriculture. But under the Helms proposal, cigarettemakers would submit sealed plans of their tobacco purchasing in the year ahead. The total of those plans, plus a little for export, would in effect constitute the allotment. The support price would also be lowered.

This does not sound like a way for the government to kick its tobacco-support habit. It is also galling that the Helms proposal includes a provision whereby the taxpayers would subsidize, to the tune of up to $1.1 billion, the sale of pre-1982 tobacco in storage, at discounts of up to 90 percent. Clearly public policy should move in the direction of discouraging smoking, ending subsidies to tobacco, and supporting farmers' efforts to diversify.

The only incentives to diversification at this point are hard marketplace realities. With the support price lowered, vegetables, poultry, and other crops become more attractive alternatives for farmers. But tobacco farmers, operating under the hitherto comfortable umbrella of price supports and growing a commodity that can be stored for years, will have a lot to learn about marketing perishables if they go into growing vegetables. They need more support.

Demand for US tobacco has been falling for a number of reasons, including the fact that fewer people are smoking in this country. Thus assessments have soared and allotments have grown smaller. It is appalling to have to support as taxpayers the habits we no longer support as consumers. Humanity has enough problems with bad habits it doesn't want to give up. Tobacco is a habit many are giving up; let's not do anything to prolong its stay on the farm scene.

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