WASHINGTON — Kentucky’s main tobacco crop would be devastated by proposed international regulations designed to restrict the content of cigarettes, according to growers and lawmakers who are fighting the proposal.
The regulations, being written by the World Health Organization as part of the international tobacco control treaty, would effectively ban the use of burley tobacco in cigarettes, opponents say. The rules could be approved later this year.
Six of the eight members of Kentucky’s congressional delegation have written organization officials in protest, arguing that a burley ban would provide no public health benefits.
“We believe these overly broad guidelines are a threat to the livelihood of American tobacco growers,” warned the lawmakers’ letter, signed by Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., and Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-1st District; Brett Guthrie, R-2nd; Geoff Davis, R-4th; Hal Rogers, R-5th; and Ben Chandler, D-6th.
Gov. Steve Beshear’s office said he had not written to oppose the regulations.
Kentucky is the nation’s leading producer of burley tobacco, with a crop worth $274million in 2009. As many as 10,000 of the state’s farmers produce the leaf, which is a key ingredient in the so-called “American blend” cigarettes made in the United States and overseas.
Nearly three-quarters of the roughly 200 million pounds of American burley produced annually is exported, a dramatic change from the early 1990s, when exports accounted for only a quarter to a third of U.S. production, according to Will Snell, an agricultural economist at the University of Kentucky.
If the ban is adopted, the 169 nations that have approved the treaty will be expected to enact it, Whitfield said in an interview.
“Burley tobacco grown in Kentucky basically would be banned from being shipped anywhere,” he said.
And that “would be bad for us,” said Ryan Peach, 20, who grows burley near Lawrenceburg in Anderson County. He said his family has been growing burley for at least five generations.
“That’s what I grew up doing and all I plan on doing,” Peach said.
Palatability plays role
At issue are regulations being developed under the treaty that would bar the use in cigarettes of all ingredients other than tobacco.
Because of its harsh characteristics, burley requires the use of flavorings and processing ingredients as it is blended with other tobaccos.
The letter from the Kentucky lawmakers was written June 30 to Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Jonas Gahr Store, who is playing a lead role in formulating the new guidelines, to be considered at a November meeting in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
“While legislation that seeks to eliminate sweet or candy flavored tobacco from the market may be well intended, the prohibition on the use of all ingredients goes far beyond eliminating only those products with so-called characterizing flavors,” the letter said.
“The draft (treaty) guidelines would eliminate the entire category of traditional American blend tobacco that contains burley tobacco, while allowing other categories of cigarettes to remain in the marketplace,” the lawmakers continued. “This is simply unfair and does nothing more than stop the sale of American blended tobacco.”
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, said the cigarette content guidelines aren’t intended to discriminate against a particular type of tobacco.
Instead, he said, the proposed rules “are correctly designed to make it more difficult for tobacco manufacturers to manipulate cigarettes to make them more appealing to young people.”
But Roger Quarles, president of the Lexington-based Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association and a Georgetown farmer, said the proposed language is “ridiculous.”
“The ingredients themselves (in burley) are not harmful whatsoever,” he said.
Without the flavoring additives, Quarles said, a cigarette blended with burley would be “a product that would be less palatable to the consumer.
“Of course, that’s (the proponents’) objective: They want it to taste like you-know-what so you would be less inclined to use it.”
UK’s Snell said burley’s future in the international market “is a very serious issue.”
“For years the Kentucky burley industry knew that domestic demand would continually decline, but the glimmer of hope was that a promising international market would help offset some of the anticipated declines in the U.S. market,” he said in an e-mail.
A variety of factors justified that optimism for a while, Snell said. But since 2007 other developments — including the global recession, excessive cultivation of burley worldwide, a ban on cigarette flavorings in Canada and the pending content proposals under the tobacco treaty — have caused manufacturers and dealers to be more conservative in buying American burley, Snell said.
U.S. ratification of treaty
The United States signed the tobacco treaty, formally known as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, in May 2004.
But then-President George W. Bush never submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification, and President Barack Obama so far has not responded to public health groups’ appeals for action on it.
While the treaty took effect in 2005, the United States has had little voice in the implementation of its provisions because it has not ratified it.
Myers has been a regular attendee at international treaty meetings, even though the United States has yet to become an official party to the pact.
That is, in fact, one of the ironies of the burley growers and Kentucky lawmakers complaining now about the treaty, Myers said.
“The members of the Kentucky delegation who have long opposed the U.S. ratifying the Framework Convention have no one but themselves to hold responsible that the U.S. won’t have a formal voice in these discussions,” he said. “Now they’re on the outside when discussions like these take place.”
But Whitfield said many nations attend meetings on treaties they did not ratify.
“I don’t think there’s anything unusual about a country trying to influence an international body if a decision would affect their product,” he said.
Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest cigarette maker, declined to comment on the issue.
Frank Lester, spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., said in an e-mail that “as a domestic U.S. tobacco company, we have not weighed in on this international issue.”
For Peach, the proposed treaty rules create great uncertainty.
“I’d like to keep on going here,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to stay here or not.”
He said he takes pride in his tobacco and its long heritage.
“I enjoy working in it. I enjoy seeing it every year. I look forward to it.”
By James R. Carroll
Courier journal, July 24, 2010