Survey Results: Kicking the Habit Tough for US Tobacco Farmers

October 1, 1996

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).

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

Two-thirds of farmers under age 45 said that they were interestedor very interested in trying other farm ventures to supplementor replace tobacco. In contrast, almost half of those over 45--includingthose 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 wereasked about their attitudes toward diversification and perceivedbarriers.

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

"Concern about the economic future of tobacco farmers hasbeen a substantial barrier to promoting sound health policy ontobacco-related issues," says Michael Beachler of RWJF. "Wefunded this survey because we felt it would help fill an importantknowledge 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 companiesare primarily buying overseas where they can get tobacco for halfthe price. My role is to help farmers and community leaders figureout what the options are."

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

"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 experiencesgrowing broccoli or apples or whatever."

Those experiences include competing against huge farm operationsin other states. "For the most part, they're going to haveto have some niche, whether it's organic vegetables, nursery productsor 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 federalexcise tax on tobacco would raise $1.2 billion per year. And althoughfarmers have traditionally opposed increasing taxes on cigarettes,more than 70% of the farmers surveyed said that they would supportan excise tax increase if there was a revenue set-aside for thefarmers.

A number of national public opinion polls have shown that a majorityof Americans support increasing federal taxes on cigarettes. Importantfor tobacco farmers are the results of a new nationwide opinionpoll, in which nearly half of the respondents favored earmarkinga portion of the revenues from a cigarette tax increase to helpfarmers get out of the tobacco business.

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

Generally, public health officials have been seen as enemies oftobacco farmers. Now, according to Hamilton, there is a windowof opportunity. "We're looking at the idea of getting tobaccofarm leaders together with public health people to see if there'ssome common ground on public policy to serve the interests ofreducing consumption and protecting tobacco communities,"he says. Hamilton and Altman are conducting local and state forumswith farmers to discuss diversification, and eventually want tosee 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."