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Survey Results: Kicking the Habit Tough for US Tobacco Farmers

Survey Results: Kicking the Habit Tough for US Tobacco Farmers

Young tobacco farmers, feeling the heat from tobacco imports, increased regulation, and public health concerns, are interested in diversifying their crops, according to a recently completed survey sponsored by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

Two-thirds of farmers under age 45 said that they were interested or very interested in trying other farm ventures to supplement or replace tobacco. In contrast, almost half of those over 45--including those close to retirement--were uninterested or very uninterested. A total of 992 growers and allotment owners from North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, and Virginia were asked about their attitudes toward diversification and perceived barriers.

"Overall, 51% are interested in diversification. That's a figure that deserves our attention," says David Altman, phd, associate professor in the department of public health sciences at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Altman and Hal Hamilton, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Systems, Berea, Kentucky, compiled the US Tobacco Farmers' Opinion Study.

"Concern about the economic future of tobacco farmers has been a substantial barrier to promoting sound health policy on tobacco-related issues," says Michael Beachler of RWJF. "We funded this survey because we felt it would help fill an important knowledge gap by providing, for the first time, the tobacco farmers' views on these issues."

"These farmers are facing a troubled future," says Hamilton. "Their income will inevitably decline because tobacco companies are primarily buying overseas where they can get tobacco for half the price. My role is to help farmers and community leaders figure out what the options are."

When asked to identify barriers to diversification, 72% of the farmers cited lack of processing facilities for other crops, 60% felt that there was no place to sell other crops, and 57% thought that low-interest loans would be necessary to get started in other ventures.

"Most well-meaning people think, 'Why don't they see [tobacco] as a poison? Why don't they grow broccoli?" Hamilton says. "Now we see that farmers have had quite negative experiences growing broccoli or apples or whatever."

Those experiences include competing against huge farm operations in other states. "For the most part, they're going to have to have some niche, whether it's organic vegetables, nursery products or lean hormone-free beef," he says.

Farmers Might Support Excise Tax

Money is key to helping farmers make the transition to other crops. According to Altman, a 5-cent per pack increase in the federal excise tax on tobacco would raise $1.2 billion per year. And although farmers have traditionally opposed increasing taxes on cigarettes, more than 70% of the farmers surveyed said that they would support an excise tax increase if there was a revenue set-aside for the farmers.

A number of national public opinion polls have shown that a majority of Americans support increasing federal taxes on cigarettes. Important for tobacco farmers are the results of a new nationwide opinion poll, in which nearly half of the respondents favored earmarking a portion of the revenues from a cigarette tax increase to help farmers get out of the tobacco business.

"This is where the interests of public health and tobacco farmers intersect," Altman says. "If you raise the tax, fewer kids, and even adults, would smoke, and farmers and rural America would benefit."

Generally, public health officials have been seen as enemies of tobacco farmers. Now, according to Hamilton, there is a window of opportunity. "We're looking at the idea of getting tobacco farm leaders together with public health people to see if there's some common ground on public policy to serve the interests of reducing consumption and protecting tobacco communities," he says. Hamilton and Altman are conducting local and state forums with farmers to discuss diversification, and eventually want to see the excise tax increase on the national agenda.

"If farm interests and public health interests can be married," Altman says, "it would be a powerful voice for change."

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