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Tobacco Farmers Face Tougher Future As Americans Smoke Less

June 28, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The ″No Smoking″ signs are going up everywhere as Americans puff fewer cigarettes and hear U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop calling for a smoke- free society by the year 2000.

″That almost surely will not occur, but anti-smoking activity, including recent legislation and the threat of more to come, continues to affect the industry,″ says Agriculture Department economist Verner Grise.

Already, the decline in tobacco use has had an effect on one of America’s original farm crops. And there are calls for more drastic action, including the elimination of government price supports, acreage allotments and services provided to growers.

Forty-one states and the District of Columbia now have laws that either ban smoking in certain places or segregate smokers from non-smokers, Grise said. Ten states regulate smoking in the work place of both private and government employers.

″The cumulative effect of publicity and ordinances on smoking is difficult to measure, but it almost certainly accounts for at least some of the downward trend consumption,″ Grise said.

On a per capita basis, Americans are smoking fewer cigarettes than at any time since 1944, he said. The annual use by adults 18 and older peaked at 4,345 cigarettes per person in 1963 but generally has declined since then as health concerns and rising taxes on tobacco products took their toll.

By last year, per capita consumption had declined to 3,274 cigarettes, a statistical figures that includes smokers and non-smokers alike.

Tobacco is grown commercially in at least 16 states. North Carolina is the biggest producer, mostly flue-cured, while Kentucky, the leading burley producer, is second overall. The two states accounted for about 62 percent of total U.S. tobacco acreage last year.

Other states where tobacco is an important crop include: Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

A new report in USDA’s Farmline magazine examines the tobacco situation and the uncertain future of producers.

Grise said in the report and in an interview that none can be certain what will happen as tobacco use declines still further, except that the impact could be severe and widespread.

According to the 1982 U.S. census of agriculture, there were about 179,000 tobacco farms in the country. Grise said those have probably declined to a range of 160,000 to 170,000 farms this year. Comparatively, the 1982 census showed 715,000 farms growing corn, 511,000 with soybeans, 446,000 with wheat, 38,000 with cotton, and 23,000 with peanuts.

Whatever happens, even if all the tobacco farms were wiped out, the number of people shifted directly out of tobacco crops into something else would not be as severe as what happened the last 30 years or so.

In 1954, there were about 512,000 tobacco farms in the United States. By 1964, those had been reduced to 331,000 farms - and to 276,000 in 1969, and 198,000 in 1984.

Tobacco was involved in the agricultural revolution that took place following World War II, when tens of thousands of farmers, many of them small and marginal, pulled up stakes annually and headed for city jobs.

″There are very few crops that have as high a value as tobacco, and the ones that do would offer very limited opportunity″ to tobacco growers, Grise said.

Last year, the estimated value of U.S. tobacco production was $1.84 billion, ranking sixth in USDA’s crop list nationally. Corn was the leader, for example, with an estimated value of $12.4 billion.

But the 1986 tobacco production came from only 597,200 acres while last year’s corn was harvested from 69.2 million acres.

The shrinkage of the tobacco industry may produce far-reaching changes for communities and regions of the country as well as for tobacco farmers, according to the Farmline report.

The tobacco industry says more than 700,000 Americans earn all or part of their incomes from tobacco. At retail, tobacco business is worth more than $30 billion, generating some $9 billion in federal and state tax revenues.

″For farmers looking at survival strategies, one obvious answer is diversification,″ the report said. ″That was the advice recently offered by North Carolina’s State Goals and Policy Board. In March, the board said tobacco is a crop whose future is in jeopardy, and recommended that the state’s tobacco farmers consider diversifying their operations to include lettuce, carrots, celery and other produce.″

North Carolina once relied on tobacco for more than half its farm income, but that share has now dropped to about a fifth, the report said.

Looking to the future, Grise said tobacco production will likely have a profitable but somewhat smaller base, compared with the late 1970s and early 1980s. Grise said he did not know of any special USDA program to help tobacco farmers shift to other crops.

″Back three or four years ago, things looked pretty bleak,″ Grise said. ″Then the situation improved, beginning in April 1986 when the support level was reduced, making prices more competitive. Quotas were also lowered at the same time, and a more market-oriented approach is now used to set quota levels.″

Grise added: ″Tobacco farmers will continue to become more efficient in their production of tobacco, and some will diversify their operations. Furthermore, the tobacco industry will put an even sharper focus on expanding exports.″

End Adv Sunday June 28

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