I'm from the government and I'm here to help you. That's the message hundreds of flue-cured and burley tobacco farmers heard when they attended hearings of the President's Commission on Improving Economic Opportunity in Communities Dependent on Tobacco Production While Protecting Public Health. The hearings were held in November in Raleigh, N.C., and Louisville, Ky.

Commission members presented themselves as a non-partisan, non-political group that will advise the President on changes occurring in the tobacco farming economy.

"We're on a fact finding mission," says Jimmy Hill, a commission member and a tobacco farmer from Kinston, N.C. "These hearings and our Website are opportunities for farmers and others to express their views. I really believe this commission is made up of good people who can put together good recommendations for the tobacco growing communities and the health community. We are going to make our first report to the President on Dec. 31, and our final report six months after this first hearing."

More than 50 individuals addressed the group in Raleigh, offering insights into the impact of tobacco production on the economy as well as opinions about the impact of tobacco use on public health.

One of the most moving presentations was made by 17-year-old Brooks Wood, a high school senior and the son of a Maury, N.C., tobacco farmer. Wood described the impact tobacco farming has had on this life.

"I am a typical teenager. I do not smoke. Not because of the demise of Joe Camel or because billboards featuring the Marlboro Man have been removed from around my school. I simply do not choose to smoke. I have a 3.9 grade point average and I am a finalist for the Park Scholarship at North Carolina State University," Wood says.

He credits the work ethic and values he learned growing up on a tobacco farm for preparing him to earn the grades, achieve the community service requirements and other attributes that put him into a position to win this valuable scholarship.

"I don't know whether or not I will be awarded this scholarship. But I hope I get some kind of assistance," Wood says. "I'm going to need it. Because of quota cuts over the last three years, nearly half of our tobacco revenue has gone down the drain. I think revenue from the tobacco settlement should go to tobacco farmers so future generations can have the privilege of growing up on family farms. Thank you to tobacco for shaping lives. It has certainly shaped mine."

Several health advocates addressed their concerns about health problems associated with use of tobacco products. One woman recounted her Mother's premature death from emphysema.

"I know a lot of people make their living from tobacco; people who without tobacco might be living in poverty," she says. "I know there are 12,000 tobacco attributable deaths in North Carolina each year. Half of high school kids who (use tobacco products) will die prematurely of smoking related diseases. Age 12 is about the average age when children start smoking. My mother started smoking at age 12. She asked me to help prevent others from getting into the fix she was in. Our top priority is to cut teen smoking in half by 2010."

Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and co-chairman of the commission blames "big cigarette companies" and not smoking declines for hurting American tobacco farmers.

"Over the past decade or so, enormous increases in global demand for American-style cigarettes and U.S. brands have prompted similarly large increases in the overall demand for flue-cured and burley tobacco leaf," he says. "Yet the tobacco-growing quotas for U.S. burley and flue-cured tobacco farmers have been dropping sharply, causing enormous problems for American tobacco farmers. While the big cigarette companies try to blame reductions in U.S. smoking levels for these declining quotas, it is actually the companies, themselves, that are at fault.

"The major U.S. cigarette companies are using large amounts of foreign tobacco in the cigarettes they make in the United States. Because of massive U.S. cigarette company investments overseas, more and more American brands are being made overseas, using little or no American-grown tobacco. Massive investments in foreign tobacco farming by U.S. cigarette companies and leaf dealers have dramatically weakened U.S. tobacco farmers' competitive position throughout the world. Reduced cigarette consumption in the United States has had a relatively minor impact on the global demand for U.S. tobacco," he says.

John Cyrus, representing the North Carolina State Grange called on the commission to continue the Tobacco Program and tobacco farming in the U.S. He noted that the Grange did not endorse the "core principles" of the commission.

Has lost quota Snow Hill, N.C., farmer C.O. Kearney Jr. related the impact recent quota cuts have had on his ability to farm. He has lost tobacco quota and net worth and has had to add poultry and swine production to his operation to survive.

"I challenge you as a commission to tell my story in Washington," he says. "The federal government appears to be unaware of my existence, my struggles or my plight. My greatest need is money. Money to sustain my farming operation and money to invest in supplemental diversifications."

Several farmers who testified called on the commission to devise a way to buy out tobacco quota owners and put the quota into the hands of active growers. Several called on the commission to support some kind of "tobacco farmers' bill of rights to protect those who decide to contract directly with cigarette manufacturers for the sale of their tobacco.

Keith Parrish, a tobacco farmer from Coats, N.C., and executive director of the National Tobacco Growers Association, described himself as a strong supporter of tobacco farmers and a plaintiff in the federal suit of tobacco farmers against the major tobacco companies.

"The tobacco manufacturers have been in direct control of the tobacco program since the 1980s," he says. "No net cost, the buyout of stocks and legislation sealed our fate. The tobacco program has served us well. Planned quota cuts and the continued manipulation of the auction system has put us well below any means to earn a profit."

Speaking out against contracts, Parrish says, "The companies know that farmers have no choice but to grab the first lifeline thrown their way. Survival is what we plead. Desperation is what we feel. Contracts offer us a job, not our usual way of life."

Questionable science Parrish called the current directive to all flue-cured growers "something that is not proven science" and called on tobacco companies who want the technology introduced to pay for barn conversions.

Addressing problems in the current auction system, Parrish says, "We know that our auction is not an auction at all. We know that allocation, corruption and intimidation are the norm. What would our price received on the floor be if certain companies allowed competitive bidding?"

Be realistic "I beg the members of this commission to be realistic in its recommendations. Let fairness and common sense be your guide. Please help preserve our way of life. Let our young farmers have a future. Set free with dignity those who wish to exit. We must not allow thousands to perish when their only crime was they played by the rules," he says.

Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau notes, "Any effort, no matter how well intentioned, to separate our rural economy from reliance on this crop will have disastrous consequences. To move too rapidly away from tobacco production without proven and viable alternative will adversely affect the well being of millions of individuals who are directly and indirectly supported by the farming of tobacco."

Wooten cautioned against raising false hopes among farmers and quota holders about a quota buyout. Finally, he made it clear that any damage done to tobacco companies results in direct and negative effects on tobacco farmers.

"Commission members encourage anyone interested in participating in the on-going debate to make their feelings known by writing to: Tobacco Commission, STOP 0574, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-0574, or by sending e-mail comments to: tobcom@wdc.usda.gov

To view the comments of others and for other details about the commission, log onto http://www.fsa.usda.gov/tob.com