In black and white language, a wide-ranging coalition of farm and public health groups is calling on Congress to pass “rational and comprehensive restructuring of national policy for tobacco” that includes a buyout for growers and Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco.

At a news conference in Washington, D.C., the Alliance for Health and Economic Development, in an open letter to Congress, said the legislation should include fair, but effective regulation of tobacco products by the FDA; reform of tobacco agriculture policy, including fair compensation to growers and quota holders and elimination of the current tobacco program; and effective controls over the illegal manufacturer, sale and distribution and trafficking of tobacco and tobacco products.

Failure to enact reform will put tobacco farmers and their communities at risk; deny adult consumers of tobacco adequate warnings about the products they use; force taxpayers to continue to foot the bill for billions of dollars in health care costs; encourage the illegal manufacture and distribution; and leave Congress continuing to have to deal with tobacco-related issues that would be better left to appropriate regulatory issues.

For the last 10 years, tobacco growers have found allies within the public health community as both groups seek “meaningful solutions to the complex issue of tobacco.”

“Tobacco is…at a crossroads,” says Scott Ballin, a member of the AHEAD steering committee.

“Throughout the South, tobacco growers and their communities are on the verge of economic collapse brought on in part by the increased use of cheaper, unregulated foreign tobacco both here in the U.S. and abroad, and a tobacco program that no longer serves their interests,” Ballin says.

At the news conference, the group recommitted to work cooperatively to get legislation passed that will serve the needs of the public health community and bring short-term and long-term stability to tobacco-producing communities.

Henry West, president of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, and a Kentucky burley producer, said the current program is not working. “The current program was designed 65 years ago for a different time.” He said burley growers support FDA regulation

Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reiterated his group's support for a “fair and equitable quota buyout and a restructuring of the current tobacco program, along with enactment of legislation granting FDA jurisdiction over manufactured tobacco products.”

The American Heart Association supports the recommendations of the President's Tobacco Commission that includes replacing the current quota system with production permits, held only by active growers; financial incentives for farmers to stop growing tobacco; economic development assistance; and holding foreign-grown tobacco to the same standards as U.S.-grown tobacco, said CEO M. Cass Wheeler. “Once again, public health stands beside America's tobacco farmers.”

The Virginia Working Group, made up of Concerned Friends for Tobacco, Virginia Tobacco Growers Association, Virginia Farm Bureau and Virginia Agricultural Growers Association, urged President Bush and Congress to actively work for passage of new tobacco legislation.

Johnny Shelley, president of the South Carolina Tobacco Growers Association, pointed out that over the past six years tobacco growers have had to endure more than a 50 percent cut in quota and prices lower than they were in the 1970s. “It is the eleventh hour for many of our tobacco farms and quota owners… Reasonable FDA, along with an equitable buyout of quota (will) create a new national tobacco policy that will benefit all Americans.”

A former member of the President's Tobacco Commission, LynnCarol Birgmann, pointing to cooperation between tobacco growers and public health groups, said, “if representatives from national voluntary health organizations can seek and find common ground and mutual support with tobacco farm organizations, surely Republicans can work with Democrats and tobacco state policy makers can work with non-tobacco state members. Time is of the essence.”

Ballin of AHEAD says, “The heavy lifting has been done. Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate members from tobacco and non-tobacco states have only to complete the job of what many have been working on for decades.”

The list of groups signing the open letter:

Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corporation; Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative; South Carolina Tobacco Growers Association; AHEAD; American Heart Association; Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids; National Farmers Union; Burley Stabilization Corporation; Commodity Growers Cooperative; Tobacco Farmers for a Health Future; National Tobacco Growers Association; Concerned Friend for Tobacco (Va.).

Virginia Farm Bureau; Western Dark-Fired Tobacco Association; Missouri Council for Burley Tobacco, Inc.; Ohio Tobacco Growers Association; Indiana Tobacco Growers Association; Missouri Farm Bureau; Eastern Dark Fired Tobacco Association; and the Virginia Agriculture Growers Association.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com