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Farmers Wary of Tobacco Companies

May 7, 1998

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) _ As major cigarette makers battle a $516 billion anti-smoking measure in Congress, the tobacco industry finds itself a house divided.

Some tobacco farmers say they have grown more wary of the companies they had been quick to support.

The legislation the cigarette companies oppose includes a key provision that farmers like _ $28.5 billion in aid for tobacco growers and rural communities that would be hurt if fewer and fewer Americans smoke.

``I’m just not so sure we’re ready to carry their water _ all the water they’ve got to carry,″ said Tim Cansler, national affairs director for the Kentucky Farm Bureau.

The schism traces to last summer, when farmers learned that the tobacco companies had negotiated a $368.5 billion legal settlement with state lawyers and public health groups, without involving the growers.

``There’s some bitterness and some resentment,″ said Rod Kuegel, a Daviess County, Ky., tobacco farmer and president of the Lexington-based Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association.

Now the industry is courting the farmers, who in the past have put a sympathetic public face on issues such as increasing cigarette taxes or regulating nicotine.

``I appreciate where they are,″ J. Phil Carlton, the industry’s top lobbyist, said in a recent interview. ``They’ve been courted long and hard (by health groups and the White House), and in a sense, you’re asking a lot of them to say, ’Work with us now to help beat this bill, and we’ll help you later.‴

In North Carolina recently, top industry executives met for four hours behind closed doors with about 100 growers and farm leaders from across the South.

The meeting included Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. chairman Nick Brookes, Philip Morris USA chief executive Michael Szymanczyk, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. chief executive Andrew Schindler and Lorillard chairman Alexander Spears.

Carlton said the point of the meeting, where he served as moderator, was to explain to growers how the tobacco bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would ruin the industry and to ask for help in defeating it.

By various accounts, the farm groups in the audience were polite, listened attentively and asked questions. The growers agreed with the industry executives on some points. But the two sides didn’t walk out in lock step.

``You go to this meeting, and all of a sudden people stand up and say, ’Oh, you’re our best friends _ drop everything you’re doing and come help us,‴ said Arnold Hamm, vice president of the Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corp. in Raleigh, N.C.

Hamm said farm groups oppose large parts of the tobacco legislation, which is headed for the Senate floor May 18. But many growers also want some comprehensive legislation that would offer them greater certainty about their future. They’re still deciding whether the bill could somehow be improved in their view.

``To say we’re going to fall in line and fight whatever we’re told to fight _ particularly if there’s something in there that benefits farmers _ well, I guess we’re going to listen to our conscience,″ Hamm said.

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