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A Healthy Cigarette Tax May Help Tobacco Farmers

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was published in the Washington Post on Feb. 8, 1994.

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

The tobacco industry's strategy relies heavily on portraying tobacco farmers as "victims" of a tobacco tax. What tobacco industry executives are not telling these farmers is that a stiff tobacco tax, with a portion earmarked to tobacco-growing regions, 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. Almost all of them started smoking as children and became addicted before they were old enough to know better. There are real people with real families behind each of those death statistics — people like my father, my mother, both sisters and my brother, all of whom smoked and died of cancer.

President Clinton's proposal would lengthen the lives of an estimated 900,000 Americans alive today by discouraging children from becoming addicted to cigarettes and encouraging many current smokers to quit. This health tax would extend more lives than any single preventive health measure now under consideration.

The tobacco industry is using its enormous public-relations and lobbying resources to try to convince Congress and the American public that a health tax on tobacco would do 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 factually wrong.

Even if the debate were about tobacco industry 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 jobs, just as it has manipulated the government and the tobacco farmers for so many years. 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, including farming, warehousing, manufacturing and wholesaling.

Economists and health experts agree that President 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, either as raw tobacco or in cigarettes.

Tobacco leaf and cigarettes sent overseas will cause death and disease in other nations but will not be affected by the health tax.

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 because of rising cigarette exports.

Farmers and workers are suffering hard times because tobacco companies are now importing more than one-third of the tobacco used in U.S.-made cigarettes, producing more cigarettes overseas and automating production to eliminate manufacturing jobs. While encouraging American farmers to fight tobacco taxes, major tobacco companies are teaching growers in other countries how to produce tobacco for the U.S. market. 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 and already is occurring. 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 income. If tobacco companies were truly interested in helping farmers and not just securing profits, they would agree.

Even a much higher health tax increase of $2 per pack, which polls show is supported by the vast majority of the American public, including two-thirds of tobacco state voters, 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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