Tobacco buyout bill on hold for now

In farming terms, the disking and harrowing for a tobacco buyout was done this year. A buyout will await legislators when they reconvene in Washington, D.C., next year.

Despite the best efforts of growers and those in the U.S. Congress, there will be no tobacco buyout this year. The mule that dragged the sled is in the barn for this year.

Disappointed growers, who had lobbied hard for a buyout this year, await news of how much tobacco they will be allowed to grow in 2004. Many saw another huge cut due to foreign competition and a declining domestic consumption coming when the USDA announced the quota Dec. 15.

Blake Brown, North Carolina State ag economist, said if the buyout failed, another substantial cut in quota was expected. Without a buyout, many growers who have maintained tobacco production in hopes of a buyout would likely either retire or move to other jobs or other crops.

The year for tobacco growers began with promise, however, as grower groups ironed out differences among regions. The compromises among grower groups were several years in the making and brought the issue to the forefront. The issue also brought together health groups as well as tobacco groups.

The cornerstone of the agreement was support for $8 and $4. As Pender Sharp, a Wilson County, N.C., producer said, “Give us $8 and $4 and you can do what you want with the bells and whistles.”

With support from tobacco-state legislators and others, the tobacco buyout looked as if it might become a reality this year. The Senate offered legislation while a House compromise of several bills was introduced.

In the Senate, disagreements over Food and Drug Administration regulation of cigarettes stalled movement on a buyout. Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest cigarette manufacturer, supported a buyout linked to FDA regulation. Other tobacco companies, including RJ Reynolds oppose FDA regulation. Reynolds mounted a campaign against a tobacco buyout linked to FDA regulation.

Cigarette makers would be assessed a fee based on their market share to pay for the buyout. Reynolds had said before it merged with B&W Tobacco Corp. that the assessment would be more than its profits.

With the FDA regulation train stalled, tobacco-state senators went to Plan B, trying to move the bill through an omnibus appropriation bill. Last-minute efforts led by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., to include a $7.2 billion plan into a spending bill fell short.

In a statement, Dole said she worked “every possible angle to get this legislation passed.” Dole said she felt passionately about the buyout and would continue to “do everything in my power to get this accomplished.”

Tobacco-state House members reached a consensus on a tobacco buyout bill, forging a compromise from several bills. The $15.7 billion bill had $8 and $4 as its cornerstone. House legislators chose to drop the provision for FDA regulation of cigarettes. While they said it was key to passage of a tobacco buyout, legislators tried to link it to FDA regulation in a separate bill.

In the waning weeks of the session, some had pushed for a FDA-less tobacco buyout. They met stiff opposition.

The House leadership was waiting on Senate action before taking a vote on the tobacco buyout bill when the session ran out, says U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C.

“Farmers are extremely disappointed,” says Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau.

U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., introduced a proposal to freeze tobacco quotas at 2003 levels, but the measure was dead for this year.

A spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids believes there's a better than ever chance for the buyout to pass next year.

“We won't have to replow old ground,” Wooten says. “We certainly are not going to give up.”

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