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.

"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.

In recent years, health advocates and farmers have been meeting in Kentucky and Virginia, a slow process of trust-building aimed at getting over the notion they had nothing in common.

In fact, the two parties have found key areas of common ground. Most striking is support among some health advocates for the national tobacco program, which includes price supports and quotas. If the program were eliminated, allowing anyone who wishes to grow tobacco and sell it at a market rate, then tobacco production would likely go up, the price would drop, and the price of cigarettes would drop - making them more affordable, especially to young people.

Furthermore, the end of the program would put a lot of small farmers out of business, which could be devastating to rural economies - and to the health of families that live there - that are already weak. (Even with the tobacco harvest in full swing, unemployment in Halifax County is 13 percent).

Some health advocates still don't think tobacco growers should be protected, and of those who do, many qualify that support by saying it's "for the foreseeable future."

Many health advocates and farmers agree that part of the tobacco settlement should be dedicated to the development and diversification of tobacco-based economies. Economic transition money could also be used to allow farmers to "retire" their quotas for a fair-market price, reducing the amount of land in the US that legally may grow tobacco.

Many tobacco growers also support policies aimed at preventing youths from using tobacco products. In addition, both sides agree on the need for controls on imported tobacco, which can contain unregulated additives, pesticides, and reconstituted leaf.

The consensus goes only so far. Many farmers have no desire to get out of the tobacco-growing business. And for health advocates, the ultimate goal is to end smoking in America.

But Scott Ballin, head of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids and a longtime participant in dialogues with farmers, thinks continued discussion is useful.

"We've got to do a better job of educating the public-health community" about what the farmers need, Mr. Ballin told the participants of last week's tour. "And we would hope that, on your side, you'd do a better job of trying to educate the other farmers."

'Tobacco is their life'

For Andrew Hyman, special assistant to the general counsel at the US Department of Health and Human Services, who had never been to a tobacco farm before, the tour was an important opportunity to hear from the people whose lives are affected by tobacco policy. "The message was clear," says Mr. Hyman, who is helping the Clinton administration form its response to the tobacco settlement. "Tobacco is their life. They have a real passion for their profession."

Whether the farmers' interests will be handled within the tobacco settlement, or separately, remains to be seen, he adds.

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