Old Foes Become Friends in the Tobacco Belt
Antismoking advocates team up with tobacco farmers to protect rural economies of the South
Otey Martin, deeply tan from a life in farming, stands before his bright-green tobacco plants and welcomes a busload of visitors.Skip to next paragraph
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"I've been growing tobacco since I was 12 years old, and I'm proud of it," says Mr. Martin, his wife, Amy, and two grown children at his side.
The Martins' audience is no ordinary group of tourists. They are health advocates, people whose goal in life is to get smokers to quit and, it would appear, to put people like Otey Martin out of business. But in the strange world of tobacco politics, farmers and national health activists are coming together around a common goal: to protect the future of rural communities now economically dependent on tobacco.
As Congress prepares to consider the national tobacco settlement this fall, this independent effort to help farmers cope with the decline of their livelihood could emerge as an important wedge between the farmers and the cigarette manufacturers. The companies have long used growers - and their representatives in Washington - for political cover.
Now the farmers are angry. The proposed $368 billion agreement between cigarette companies and 40 states contains no money for tobacco growers or their communities, which face an uncertain future. Demand for cigarettes in the United States is expected to decline, due to higher taxes and continued pressures from health advocates.
Cultivating key allies
But farmers and their political protectors in Congress aren't sitting still. Key senators and congressmen from tobacco states are working up proposals to earmark billions of dollars from the tobacco settlement for growers. The farm community has drafted its own proposal. And the health community, including former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and ex-Food and Drug Administration chief David Kessler, have become vocal defenders of the farmers.
The health advocates are "very important to us," says J.T. Davis, a board member of Concerned Friends for Tobacco, a Virginia-based advocacy group. "They wield a lot of power in Washington, and that's why we're looking to them."
In their report last month on the tobacco settlement, Drs. Koop and Kessler recommended formation of a blue-ribbon panel to suggest short- and long-term strategies for reducing the dependence of tobacco-growing states on tobacco. Kessler has also said repeatedly he believes tobacco settlement money should be used to help the farmers.
Last week's farm tour around southern Virginia's Halifax County, organized by Concerned Friends for Tobacco, was aimed at showing health activists the "human face" of the tobacco-growing industry - the farmers and their families, the equipment dealers, the warehouse owners, the auctioneers, the insurance sellers. Many of the visitors had never been to a tobacco farm or heard the musical chant of a tobacco auctioneer.
The tour itself was a first for Virginia, where tobacco is the No. 1 cash crop. But around the tobacco states, dialogue with the health community has been developing for years. In 1985, President Carter - who has lost several relatives to smoking-related illnesses - convened meetings in Atlanta.