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Growers Fear They’ll Reap Short End of Tobacco Deal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A fifth-generation tobacco grower, Rick Apple bristles when he is lumped in with cigarette companies in the public consciousness as a so-called merchant of death.

“I’ve never forced a cigarette into anybody’s mouth,” said the farmer, taking a break from working the 250 acres he cultivates with his father and uncle. “I don’t think any other farmer has either.”

The way Apple sees it, he and other tobacco growers are just decent folk trying to scrape a living from the land, many of them tilling soil that has been worked by their fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them. But in the view of many here in tobacco country, the farmers stand to suffer far worse than the large cigarette companies if a landmark $368.5-billion agreement between the industry leaders and health groups, state attorneys general and plaintiffs’ lawyers gains the approval of Congress and President Clinton.

“I don’t think it can be good for the growers,” Apple said of the settlement which would, among other provisions, seek to reduce smoking by young people and set aside funds to help others give up tobacco.

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“Historically, any lowering of tobacco consumption has drastically affected the growers much more than it has affected the companies,” he said. The companies have the option of raising cigarette prices and relying more heavily on cheaper foreign tobacco to maintain profits, Apple said. “The growers don’t have that option.”

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In the tobacco-growing states, where growers are already faced with uncertainty about the future, the complex, controversial settlement announced Friday was greeted with apprehension and, for many, a sense of resignation. No one knows for sure what effect the settlement will have, or even what its final form will be. But the consensus is that farmers won’t be helped by it.

“My husband is 66 years old, and he’s been farming all his life,” said Anne Stephenson, an elementary school teacher whose husband owns a large farm south of Raleigh. “I hope this is his last year,” she said. It’s too hard a life and the rewards have become too few, she said.

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Tobacco is a major crop in the Carolinas, Kentucky, Virginia and other Southern states. But any ripple effect from the settlement would be felt most strongly in North Carolina, which produces 52% of all domestically grown tobacco. This is home base for much of the $45 billion-a-year tobacco industry. Both Philip Morris Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. , which together account for almost three-fourths of the cigarettes sold in the United States, are based in the state. Apple’s farm is within 50 miles of three of the largest cigarette-manufacturing plants in the country.

If tobacco consumption drops, about 17,000 farmers in North Carolina will feel it, along with the businesses and communities that rely on tobacco income. But Mark Vitner, a regional economist at First Union Corp. in Charlotte, said the state’s economy has become so large and diverse that a major downturn would not be nearly as detrimental as it would have been in an earlier era.

“Two decades ago, the tobacco industry represented 20% of this state’s economy,” he said. “Today, tobacco accounts for only about 6.5% of our economy, or about $12 billion annually.”

But that is small consolation for the many rural communities that rely on tobacco for their livelihoods.

Tobacco revenue and taxes, as farmers are quick to tell you, built roads, universities, churches and supported countless businesses. Many North Carolinians fear what would happen should cigarette manufacturers turn to other nations, not only for a larger share of tobacco consumers but also for the tobacco with which they make their products.

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Long viewed as inferior in quality, foreign-grown tobacco has been improving because of technological advancements. And it is far cheaper than American tobacco, in part because of price supports and an American quota system that limits production in an attempt to keep demand high.

“Brazil, Argentina, Zimbabwe, Malawi--these are now fierce competitors,” Apple said. Because of rising land costs, foreign competition, dwindling profits and, now, the uncertain future presaged by the tobacco agreement, he said, “I don’t see that 10 years down the road that we’re going to be able to farm.”

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He and others said they would like to see Congress take steps to protect farmers.

“Tobacco has provided a livelihood for many families in this state,” said Harold Brubaker, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives. “I hope this settlement will benefit public health without destroying the industry which helped build North Carolina’s economy.”

Many farmers have left the fields, especially those with small operations. In 1950, North Carolina had 150,764 tobacco farmers. Now there are 17,625. The crop back then accounted for 60% of farm income; now it accounts for 20%. While most farmers have diversified to other crops, they say they cannot afford to give up tobacco altogether because it remains the most profitable.

The day after the settlement proposal was announced, Apple said, he picked up a newspaper and read a story in which a local legislator was quoted as saying the deal “did everything but sign the death certificate for the tobacco industry.”

While it’s too early to predict with certainly what will happen, Apple said he tends to agree, at least as far as the American farmer is concerned.

With studies showing that most of the farmers in his area are in their 50s, he expects the ranks of tobacco farmers to dwindle even more. He said he doubts his sons--ages 6 and 9--will follow him into the profession. “I won’t encourage them to do it,” he said.

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And as the economic pressures have increased, so have societal pressures. Tobacco farming, a once-respected profession, increasingly is stigmatized, even in this region.

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While there still are towns here where public smoking is the rule rather than the exception--in Angier, N.C., for example, one supermarket supplies ashtrays in the aisles--more and more, businesses will not allow folks to light up.

Stephenson said she is incredulous when people come to visit her home--the home of a tobacco farmer--and automatically assume that they must excuse themselves to go outside to smoke.

“I tell them, ‘You can smoke in my house any time,” she said with a laugh.

She said the number of smokers she encounters has dwindled as more and more people turn against the habit. “It’s gotten to where I’m amazed when I see people smoking.”

Even her husband, Jay, has quit. He had a three-pack-a-day habit.

“He would be reaching in his pocket for a cigarette with one already in his mouth,” she said. “He stopped nine or 10 years ago because the children kept at him to quit,” she said.

Many people here say they are confused at the level of scorn that is heaped on tobacco. Saying she doesn’t disagree with efforts to stop children from smoking, Stephenson asked: “If they’re going to clean up the evils of society, why not include alcohol?”

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