Take tobacco off the taxpayer's back

The US tobacco crop support program barely escaped major reduction last year -- if not outright rejection. Though finally approving a continued program, Congress specifically directed a House subcommittee to hold regional hearings during 1982 and come up with a workable plan that would enable the government to eventually get taxpayers out of having to support tobacco subsidies through general taxes.

In short, said Congress, the tobacco program should operate at ''no net cost'' for taxpayers.

This week, the House Agriculture Committee approved a program that to a large extent does just that. The measure, which now goes to the floor of the House, represents a major change in the entire federal tobacco support (loan) program - and a change that is in the right direction.

The measure would do three things:

* It would require nonfarming corporations, universities, and other public agencies to sell off their lucrative government-issued tobacco production allotments and quotas. The allotments are valuable, since profits garnered from renting out rights to grow tobacco can run in the thousands of dollars. But this means that to a large extent the tobacco support program now benefits allotment holders, not farmers.

Over the years, the government has issued some 620,000 allotments. But there are only around 270,000 actual tobacco farmers. In North Caroline alone, banks control over 2,500 acres; other allotment holders include the Carolina Power and Light Company, the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority, and Duke University.

The House measure, meanwhile, while forcing institutional nonfarmers out of tobacco farming, would protect allotment rights held by individuals, such as retired persons or widows.

* The measure will require tobacco farmers to pay any actual losses resulting to taxpayers from the support program.

Such losses would be paid for through modest fees -- pennies per pound -- imposed on growers.

* The secretary of agriculture, finally, would be given authority to lower price supports on some grades of tobacco.

The federal tobacco program -- which guarantees farmers a price for their crop while imposing production controls -- dates back to the New Deal. According to the Department of Agriculture, the government over the years has lost roughly loans. In effect, this represents a subsidy paid for by taxpayers. The proposal now before the House would go far in ensuring that future losses on tobacco will be borne by the tobacco growers themselves and not the general public. The measure thus represents a promising new approach that deserves careful attention by lawmakers.

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