Bridges are blocked in search of buyout

Traveling from southern Maryland to Virginia the other day, I got in a traffic jam over the bridge crossing the Potomac River. It seemed appropriate that I was stuck at the foot of a two-lane bridge.

Going from Maryland to Virginia, the span is a toll bridge. Going the other way, there isn't a toll.

I had traveled to Maryland in search of a buyout. Or at least to talk to tobacco growers who have gone through a tobacco buyout.

Five years ago a former governor instigated a buyout to rid Maryland of its tobacco. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, 87 percent of Maryland's tobacco growers have signed up for payments to not grow the golden leaf. A declining market led many to see the end was near. In that way, flue-cured tobacco farmers face some of the same dynamics as Maryland growers faced. (There are differences, however, and we'll report in a later issue on how it's going in Maryland since the buyout.)

The buyout happened fairly quickly in Maryland, something flue-cured and burley producers would likely pay big to have happen this year.

You kept hearing that last year was the year to pass a tobacco buyout. Then it fell apart at the hinges of Food and Drug Administration regulation of cigarettes. The major tobacco companies couldn't come to agreement on a buyout or FDA regulation.

Last year passed with another quota cut. The cut wasn't as bad because of a purchase of tobacco, but it still was a cut and portends more cuts if something isn't done to the program.

Growers agreed last year on the parameters of a buyout. That was quite a feat, considering that the flue-cured and burley belt covers a diversity of states.

It looked as if a buyout might make its way through Congress before an election year. Much like a traffic jam on a two-lane bridge, FDA regulation stalled. Democrats wanted different language than the Republicans.

Talks continue in Congress to move legislation forward. But it's an election year. We were warned last year about the prospects of moving anything associated with tobacco forward.

Legislation is expected in Congress on a tobacco bill, but it's falling along partisan lines, according to sources. Meanwhile, tobacco farmers and their communities continue to suffer. Without a buyout and reform, some see declining consumption and continue quota cuts being the latest nail in the coffin.

So many people agree that a buyout is in the best interests of both tobacco growers and the nation. Public health groups such as Tobacco Free Kids, and the American Heart Association are actively supporting the tobacco buyout linked with FDA regulation. Tobacco growers should be congratulated on building bridges with these groups. They both see the benefit of the tobacco buyout.

Just as in Maryland, tobacco will likely be grown in the traditional flue-cured and burley states — by growers who have the experience. But, when it's said and done, it's never been in the hands of growers.

It all boils down to this: The only bridge to a tobacco buyout is over the Potomac River. At the present writing, that bridge continues to be blocked with barriers to the passage of a tobacco buyout that would benefit growers, communities and public health.

Reform has to be and will be part of the equation, whether or not a buyout passes. It would make things a whole lot easier if a buyout passes.

By now, the traffic over the bridge was starting to move. I paid my toll and started the incline over the Potomac. The police had traffic stopped the other way, allowing one lane to move at a time.

As I moved into the other lane, I saw the problem. A truck was stalled in the right-hand lane.

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