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Requires high nicotine

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High-nicotine tobacco smells like money

Joan Ryan

Tobacco farmer Dwight Watson's voice poured through the phone line like cream on a slice of sweet-potato pie. He was calling from North Carolina, where his family has grown tobacco for 150 years. He had read my column asking why, despite billion-dollar liability suits that slammed tobacco companies for their deadly and addictive product, cigarettes are still on the market.

"If people are going to point fingers at the tobacco companies and farmers, then you have to point fingers at the government, too," he said. "It's the government that won't let farmers plant low-nicotine tobacco."

I checked it out. He's right.

Seeds for low-nicotine tobacco were essentially banned by the USDA in 1963. To this day, in order to be eligible for full government price supports, farmers must certify each year that they are not growing any low-nicotine varieties.

So, while the government sues tobacco companies for killing 400,000 Americans each year, it is enforcing laws that ensure cigarettes remain addictive.

"If you grow tobacco, everybody thinks you're evil," Watson said. "I'm not down here manipulating nicotine. I'm following the laws of the federal and state government."

The USDA's Minimum Standards Program, which requires nicotine levels in tobacco to fall within a prescribed range, was instituted at the urging of Big Tobacco. High nicotine makes American tobacco attractive around the world. It has a desirable flavor and, more important, it carries the satisfying chemical kick that smokers crave.

The purpose of the Minimum Standards Program is to give foreign buyers confidence in the American product, thereby protecting the financial interests of our tobacco industry. Of course, it also guarantees a steady stream of new addicts for generations to come.

This benefits the government almost as much as Big Tobacco. Dwight Watson told me that when he sells a 700-pound bale of tobacco, he clears about $150 after expenses. That bale makes about 16,000 packs of cigarettes. If those packs are sold in New York City, the federal, state and local governments will have pocketed $58,000 in taxes on Watson's bale of tobacco. Each year, the tobacco industry generates about $13 billion in taxes.

States are also reaping billions every year from the 1997 settlement with Big Tobacco to recover Medicaid expenses for people harmed by cigarettes. Governments now count on this money in their annual budgets to cover items ranging from tuition scholarships to road repairs. Less than 8 percent of the settlement money has been spent on tobacco-control programs.

Obviously, none has been spent on developing low-nicotine tobacco, either. Tobacco-industry folks say low-nicotine cigarettes aren't marketable, so even if the tobacco were allowed to be grown, no company would buy it.

"It doesn't have the flavor or aroma," said W.K. Collins, a tobacco specialist at North Carolina State University. "It's like bourbon without alcohol."

Perhaps some of the tobacco settlement should go to researchers who can develop a satisfying cigarette with low nicotine, one with flavor and aroma but less addictive kick. Dr. David Kessler, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, raised the question in testifying before Congress.

"In many cigarettes today, the amount of nicotine is a result of choice, not chance," he said. "Since the technology exists to reduce nicotine in cigarettes to insignificant levels, why, one is led to ask, does the industry keep nicotine in cigarettes at all?"

Because our government is in on the deal. It scolds Big Tobacco with one hand and lights up with the other.

E-mail Joan Ryan at

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