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A Hefty Tobacco Tax Can Help Our Farmers

By Jimmy Carter

Published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The tobacco industry has launched a massive campaign to defeat President Clinton's proposal for a substantial health tax on cigarettes and an equivalent tax on other tobacco products.

The industry's strategy relies heavily on portraying tobacco farmers as "victims" of a tobacco tax. What industry executives are not telling farmers is that a stiff tobacco tax would have little effect on tobacco farmers, their communities and their states, and may actually be beneficial.

As a Southerner and a farmer, I care about the plight of the tobacco farmer. But I also care that tobacco killed 419,000 Americans last year. There are real people with real families behind each of those statistics - people like my father, my mother, both my sisters and my brother, all of whom smoked and died of cancer.

Clinton's proposal would discourage children from becoming addicted to cigarettes and encourage many current smokers to quit. The health tax would extend more lives than any single preventive health measure now under consideration.

The tobacco industry claims that a health tax would so such a good job of reducing smoking that tobacco farmers and the economy of the South would be devastated.

This implies that Americans must keep smoking and dying in vast numbers to preserve tobacco industry jobs and the economic health of tobacco-producing states. This argument is both immoral and wrong.

Even if the debate were about jobs vs. human lives, only the tobacco processors would support the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of lives to protect a much smaller number of jobs.

But the debate is not about jobs vs. lives. The tobacco industry has distorted the facts about the jobs. One recent industry publication projected that the tax would cost 270,000 jobs even though there are only 256,616 jobs involved in the entire U.S. tobacco industry.

Economists and health experts agree that Clinton's proposal would cause about a 12 percent drop in smoking. But this would not be devastating for tobacco farmers. Demand for U.S. grown tobacco would drop by only about 6 percent because approximately half of all U.S. grown tobacco is now exported.

The irony is that tobacco farmers really are in trouble. More than 40,000 tobacco farms disappeared during the past 10 years, and tobacco manufacturing jobs have fallen 29 percent. These job losses cannot be blamed on health restrictions; they occurred despite the fact that 28 billion more cigarettes were made in the United States in 1991 than in 1983.

Farmers and workers are suffering hard times because tobacco companies are now importing more than one-third of the tobacco used U.S. made cigarettes, producing more cigarettes overseas and automating production to eliminate manufacturing jobs.

These actions by tobacco manufacturers have caused more job losses among farmers and workers than a tobacco tax ever will.

Change for tobacco farmers is inevitable. Tobacco farmers and their true political leaders should look to the future and pursue their enlightened self-interest in a high health tax on tobacco, with a generous portion earmarked to help tobacco farmers and their communities shift to other sources of incomes.

A health tax increase of $2 per pack could be one of the best things that ever happened to tobacco farmers and the South - not to mention the rest of the country.

Former President Jimmy Carter is chairman of The Carter Center in Atlanta.

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