Tobacco farmers in Carolinas focus on survival 'Everybody has to play their cards for themselves,' one says

March 05, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WILSON, N.C. - As a lifelong tobacco grower, Doug Webb is grateful the overseas market for cigarettes is booming. As a parent, he doesn't approve of teen-age smoking - anywhere. But he says he can't worry his tobacco may end up in cigarettes smoked by adolescents overseas.

"If they don't get them from us, they'll get them somewhere else," the 43-year-old farmer says. "Everybody has to play their cards for themselves."

As Congress considers the proposed $368.5 billion tax-deductible tobacco settlement - and how such a far-reaching pact might affect the rest of the world - Carolinas farmers like Webb concentrate on surviving.

'Somebody else's problem'

"I don't think they think very much about young kids in Manila smoking," says Ferrel Guillory, a University of North Carolina professor who studies tobacco farm issues for a Chapel Hill research firm. "It's viewed as somebody else's problem."

Guillory says farmers are preoccupied by uncertainties closer to home: the proposed settlement, the industry's shift abroad and how those momentous changes might affect them.

"Their world as they know it is collapsing around them," Guillory says.

And while farmers search for ways to guarantee their long-term survival, anti-smoking politicians and health advocates are vowing any U.S. settlement with the tobacco industry won't be at the expense of the world's young people.

"In agreeing to settle the lawsuits brought against them, the corporate nicotine dealers made sure they retained full authority to provide a nicotine 'fix' that hooks kids around the world to their deadly product," U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, charges.

Phil Carlton, a North Carolina lawyer representing the tobacco companies, says the U.S. tobacco settlement can't set policy - but can be a model - for the rest of the world.

"This Congress and president can't make laws for other countries," he notes, but says the industry is willing to discuss tobacco policy with any foreign government that asks.

Some influential health advocates, including former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, have criticized U.S. trade policies of a decade ago which helped to open new markets for American cigarettes in Japan and other Asian countries.

"The federal government must not serve as an accomplice to big tobacco in the export of death, disease, and disability throughout the world," says Koop.

During the Reagan and Bush administrations, the U.S. Trade Representative's office used threats of economic sanctions to open the lucrative markets at the request of cigarette makers. But the office hasn't done that in the 1990s and its policy is to respect anti-smoking laws and policies passed by foreign governments, according to a U.S. trade official who asked not to be identified.

An international view

International health advocates attending a worldwide anti-smoking conference in Beijing in August strongly criticized the U.S. settlement plan, saying it proposes to reduce U.S. teen-age smoking at the expense of the young people in the rest of the world. They said the cost and restrictiveness of the proposed pact would unleash more expansion of U.S. companies to youth-driven markets overseas.

Some North Carolina members of Congress say there's not much they can do about foreign expansion of a legal product.

U.S. Rep. Melvin Watt, a Democrat from Charlotte, said he's opposed to teen-age smoking but doesn't think a U.S. settlement can - or should try to - address worldwide concerns. He said he hasn't decided whether to support the settlement proposal.

U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, who represents tobacco-growing counties in eastern North Carolina, says he's more concerned about other settlement issues, such as protecting tobacco farmers' livelihoods.

"It looks like the world market will continue to grow," he says. "And as long as tobacco's a legal product, our farmers ought to have a part of it."

Etheridge says he's also wary of restricting the tobacco industry's ability to expand abroad because the cigarette makers may move more of their operations out of the tobacco-growing states.

"We have to be very careful about how we intend to meddle," he says.

Anti-smoking advocates predict worldwide concern over teen-age smoking will force Congress to include at least some funding for international anti-smoking programs if it approves a tobacco pact.

Richard Daynard, who heads the Boston-based Tobacco Products Liability Project, predicted Congress would be "embarrassed" enough by the omission to put something in the final version.

Robert Weissman, who directs a corporate accountability organization affiliated with Ralph Nader, predicts any pact approved by Congress will include money for United Nations anti-smoking programs. The World Health Organization's tobacco control activities have a budget of only about $1 million a year.

Carlton says the tobacco industry in the proposed pact has agreed to allow the U.S. government to use an undetermined portion of settlement money to underwrite WHO activities.

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