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US Tobacco Business Going Through Major Changes

The tobacco business in the United States is going through major changes, as public attitudes toward smoking grow increasingly negative, and as the federal and state governments take steps to help tobacco farmers switch to other crops.

Boone County, in the heart of Missouri, is a part of the state featuring a little bit of industry and a lot of farmland. One of the region's primary crops is tobacco. Bucky Roberts lives on a farm near McBaine. He's been harvesting tobacco since 1942, and has seen the size of his crop reduced dramatically over the years. "I was putting out [producing on] six acres [2.5 hectares]," he said. "Great big field back there, used to put out six acres. The government took it all away from us. They just cut the basis in '98 and cut them down. I had 6,000 pounds [almost 3,000 kilograms] here at one time and they cut it down to about 2,300 pounds, [about a metric ton] now."

The federal government didn't actually take the land from Mr. Roberts and other farmers. It set quotas for the amount of tobacco that could be grown. And, that's not really new. "They set the quota on the tobacco as to how much you can raise," said Bucky Roberts. "They've done that since 1937."

The federal government has also been cutting back on the amount of land to be used for growing tobacco. Of course, farmers like Mr. Roberts expect to be compensated. "They say they're gonna pay us $12 a pound [$26 per kilogram] over a period of five years, but they may cut that down to $1 a pound [$2.20 per kilogram] over five years," he said. "You never know what the government's gonna do. But, see, it hasn't been through Congress yet and there's no telling what'll come out of Congress, see."

There's even more money tobacco farmers can expect to receive. It comes from the National Tobacco Settlement - the 1998 agreement that settled lawsuits against the nation's big tobacco companies. Robin Perso with the Missouri Department of Agriculture administers this federal program at the state level. The money is for all tobacco farmers, both those who are staying and those who are getting out. "It's for anybody that's growing tobacco," he said. "And, part of the thought is that it will help them transition out if they're interested in getting out. But, it's also a compensation for reduced prices that they're receiving."

And Mr. Perso says farmers should receive money from this deal for several more years. "The original agreement was for 12 years and we've made three payments, so far," he said. "We'll make another payment at the end of this calendar year in December. So, there'll be an additional eight payments after that, assuming that the program continues as it's now structured."

Bucky Roberts has decided to get out and use his land for something else. "This is the last year," said Bucky Roberts. "This is it. I'll put that in alfalfa where I used to grow tobacco. I'll put it in alfalfa."

Bucky Roberts' tobacco growing days are at an end, but other Boone County farmers, like Rodney Gintner from Columbia, want to stay. "I like the tobacco farming," he said.

In Mr. Gintner's case, tobacco farming is a family affair. "I raise 2.5 acres (one hectare)," he said. "That's what I've traditionally raised for about 13 years. I've been with tobacco for about 16 years. I started dating a young lady whose father had tobacco base and then we later married and he was nice enough to give me some of the poundage that he was raising from the other quota owners in the area."

Mr. Gintner is having a tough time earning a lot of money farming tobacco. He blames foreign competition. "We do not believe that the demand for tobacco has declined, worldwide," said Rodney Gintner. "We believe it's stabilized but because import tobacco is so much cheaper the buyers are going and buying import tobacco and we, the American tobacco farmers, need to become more competitive."

Meanwhile, back near McBaine, Bucky Roberts is harvesting his final tobacco crop. He thanks the big tobacco companies for the money he'll receive from the National Settlement. But he's not convinced the rest of the money from the Settlement will actually arrive at its promised destination - tending to the needs of Americans suffering from lung cancer, emphysema, and other smoking-related health problems. "That's out of the tobacco settlement they got off Philip Morris," he said. "That they're gonna heal all the sick people with. Sick people [are] never gonna see a dime of it."