Am. Cancer Society, growers join in push for tobacco buyout

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- At one time the American Cancer Society and South Carolina's tobacco farmers seemed unlikely partners, but in recent years they have joined forces to push Congress for passage of a tobacco buyout.

A three-day bus tour across South Carolina began Monday to publicize the issue and stop at the district offices of members of the state's congressional delegation.

The Cancer Society supports a plan recently approved by the Senate to allow more government regulation of cigarettes and provide $12 billion to end the tobacco quota system. The cost would be paid by tobacco companies.

A House version calls for a smaller $9.6 billion buyout paid for by taxpayers but no new Food and Drug Administration tobacco rules.

South Carolina growers stand to receive about $1 billion under the Senate version, according to Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C.

In recent years, the government began reducing farmers' tobacco quotas, and many say the quotas now are too small to make much of a profit.

The state's 2,800 tobacco farmers want some sort of buyout, said Johnny Shelley, president of the South Carolina Tobacco Growers Association.

"We don't care if it's the House version or the Senate version, although we think in the end we're going to have to have the FDA to get anything," he said from his tobacco warehouse in Mullins.

"Tobacco growers want the buyout regardless of which version," he said. "They are willing to accept the FDA to get it."

Nancy Cheney, director of governmental relations for the American Cancer Society in South Carolina, says the group opposes the current House version because it has no FDA provisions.

"We'd like to see everything that goes in a pack of cigarettes," she said, adding that it would also mean FDA oversight of tobacco imported from overseas.

"It also goes to marketing," said Lisa Turner, state director of tobacco initiatives for the cancer society. "We have many marketing ploys that go to underage smokers."

She said that in other consumable products, if a company makes a health claim, the FDA requires that the claim be backed up.

"Tobacco companies aren't held to that same standard," Turner said. "You have products on the market right now that are being advertised as being low risk and some advertised as being low tar, but there are no standards of what would be low tar and on whose scale."

The group, along with the American Heart Association and tobacco growers, wrote a letter to members of the state's congressional delegation Monday.

"Modernization of the current tobacco policy coupled with FDA oversight of manufactured tobacco products will provide stability for family farmers and tobacco dependent communities and protect public health," the letter said.

Shelley said there are about 16,000 tobacco growers and tobacco quota holders in the state.

Eliminating the rent paid to quota holders will make tobacco grown in the state more competitive with foreign tobacco, he said.

The White House was reluctant to overhaul the tobacco quota system, and President Bush had said no change was needed. Eventually, the Bush administration supported a buyout similar to the House's version.

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