U.S. may promote tobacco overseas
WASHINGTON -- Despite its war on smoking in the United States, the federal government may soon be paying to promote U.S. tobacco overseas, a move that alarms some health advocates.
The House Agriculture Committee voted last week to include tobacco among the crops that qualify for the Market Assistance Program, which pays for foreign advertising, in-store promotions, trade fairs and other promotional activities for a variety of American-made goods.
Federally funded overseas tobacco promotion has been prohibited since 1993, when Congress passed and President Clinton signed a bill to that effect.
But Rep. Ernie Fletcher, a Lexington Republican, and Rep. Bob Etheridge, a North Carolina Democrat, lobbied to amend the pending farm bill to include tobacco among American farm products that can be promoted overseas.
``The Sixth District produces overwhelmingly the most tobacco of any district in the country and yet, because of the last administration's policy, we haven't been able to export very much at all,'' Fletcher said.
If the restriction is lifted, ``It's very beneficial for our farmers in Kentucky,'' Fletcher said.
While the proposal would not lead directly to government-funded ads for the Marlboro Man or Joe Camel, opponents say it would help Big Tobacco hook smokers worldwide.
``We don't think the U.S. government should be in the business of promoting death and disease abroad,'' said Paul G. Billings, the American Lung Association's vice president of government relations. ``Multinational tobacco companies are perfectly capable of promoting their products with their own dollars.''
Under the proposal, tobacco trade associations or cooperatives would be eligible to apply for the money. Large cigarette companies would not, but would reap the benefits of increased sales in foreign markets.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently spends $90 million a year on the Market Assistance Program, which gives money to a diverse group of producers, from the Kentucky Distillers Association and the Catfish Institute to the Cranberry Marketing Committee and the California Prune Board.
The farm bill would raise the program's budget to $200 million a year beginning next year. There is no set amount for tobacco promotion.
Rod Kuegel, president of the Lexington-based Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative, said his crop should be treated like any other legal agricultural product.
``Tobacco has been discriminated against simply because it was tobacco,'' said Kuegel. ``It's been an unfair, discriminatory practice that Congress has practiced for some time.''
Etheridge, the congressman and a North Carolina tobacco farmer, agrees.
``The future of thousands of ... tobacco farm families depend on exports, and I am not going to stand by and watch other commodities benefit from funds to access these markets while tobacco farmers are left out in the cold,'' he said.
Fletcher and Etheridge say the proposal, which is included in the House version of the 10-year, $168 billion farm bill, has a good chance of passing. The full House is expected to consider the bill in September, and the Senate early next year.
But to win approval, the proposal will have to overcome the opposition of groups like the lung association. And then there are the groups who question the Market Assistance Program itself.
``Through the Market Assistance Program, we're using general taxpayer money to subsidize the advertising budgets of some of the biggest corporations in America,'' said Dan Griswold, associate director of the Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies.
Instead of expanding ``an unfair and an unwise program,'' the government should eliminate it, said Griswold, an official at the libertarian think-tank.