When the Senate reconvenes this week, one of the first matters to come to the floor will be a measure to reform the federal tobacco support program. When the farm bill was passed last year, tobacco lobbyists managed once again to blow enough smoke around the issue to keep the support system intact--but they had to accept a requirement that the system be operated at no cost to the taxpayer.
Why is the government in the business of supporting a proven health hazard at all? The tobacco lobby will tell you that it really isn't, because, at least until recently, the program cost the government relatively little compared with other farm programs. That's because strict production controls kept stockpiles from accumulating. But this claim has lost its meaning as foreign imports have undercut government-supported tobacco prices and domestic producers have begun to dump their unwanted stocks on the government.
The availability of competitive foreign tobacco has also demolished the already dubious credibility of the tobacco lobby's argument that the subsidy program actually serves the purpose of limiting the availability of tobacco. Another increasingly unpalatable aspect of the program is that it depends upon what is essentially a government-created monopoly. Anyone wanting to grow tobacco who doesn't happen to own land that was in tobacco cultivation in the 1930s must lease an allotment from one of the lucky individuals or institutions that bought or inherited this privilege.
Tobacco-state legislators are eager to push through a reform measure before the opening of the tobacco markets this month. They are worried that without some changes, tobacco stockpiles will soar and produce a reaction sufficient to demolish the support program altogether. They have fashioned-- and pushed through the House in record time--a measure that would require farmers to pay fees each year that would presumably cover costs of storing and disposing of tobacco that they can't sell at the support price. If surpluses keep building up, the secretary of agriculture could cut back somewhat on legislated increases in support prices.
The allotment monopoly would live on, but institutions and people not in the farming business at all would get only one last dip at the trough. They'd have to sell their allotments to people with at least some direct interest in growing tobacco. That's some improvement, but no substitute for a clear commitment to ending--at least beyond the lifetime of the current allotment holders--this particular system of inherited privilege.
It's hard to love a tobacco support bill of any sort. This one at least has the virtue of shifting the costs of the tobacco supports from taxpayers to producers. The producers, in turn, would pass those costs on to tobacco consumers--and maybe, just maybe, that would strengthen their resolve to kick a bad habit.