ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s decision to settle a suit against four major cigarette makers won’t keep tobacco farmers from preparing their crop for market in March.
State tobacco farmers said they do not think the settlement officials agreed to Friday will have much of an impact on their livelihood.
The deal struck with four major cigarette makers will award Maryland more than $4 billion over a 25-year period. By signing the settlement, Maryland forfeits the right to sue the industry for past and future health costs of smoking.
But Maryland tobacco farmers contacted this week said they aren’t too concerned about potential fallout from the settlement – including the possibility that cigarette makers might raise the price of their products to help pay for the deal.
“Most cases, whenever there is a price increase, [there is] … a decrease on demand,” said Buddy Hance, a 43-year-old, fourth-generation tobacco farmer in Calvert County. But, he added, he thought the decrease would be negligible.
Mildred Darcey, a 72-year-old Prince George’s County tobacco farmer, concurred, saying she didn’t believe a price increase would affect demand for her 10-acre crop in Upper Marlboro.
“I think they’re still going to buy [cigarettes],” she said.
David Conrad, a regional tobacco specialist for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, said there is a direct correlation between cigarette prices and demand. But, he added, “My initial reaction is if it’s only 40 cents or a nickel [increase], smokers are going to keep buying cigarettes.”
Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening said a portion of the settlement money should be used to aid tobacco farmers in growing alternative crops, such as fresh-cut flowers.
But the Maryland farmers interviewed aren’t thrilled with that suggestion.
“I would like someone to tell me what the `alternative’ would be,” said Steven Walter, a 38-year-old tobacco farmer in Hughesville and president of the Southern Maryland Tobacco Board, created by farmers to boost domestic and international tobacco markets. “Tobacco is the only thing with profit.”
“You can go out and interview 100 farmers and they will all say the same thing: an alternative crop has not been found,” Conrad said.
“It’s just hard to switch out of tobacco,” said Hance, chairman of the state Tobacco Authority and owner of a 400-acre farm in Port Republic, where he grows about 70 acres of tobacco.
As long as farmers continue to profit with tobacco, they will continue to harvest it, Hance said.
Gary V. Hodge, executive director of the Tri-County Council, described tobacco farmers as an “independent, self-reliant” group that typically refuses government subsidies. The council is a state and local government partnership to advance the interests of the Southern Maryland counties.
Maryland has about 700 tobacco farmers working 7,500 acres, harvesting 10-12 million pounds of tobacco annually, said Richard Dittman, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
In 1997, Maryland tobacco accounted for $18 million in gross sales, about 1 percent of the state’s $1.5 billion in gross agricultural income.
Maryland farms produce a Type 32 tobacco that is in demand in foreign markets. It is a lighter leaf tobacco with an even- burning quality that is low in tar and nicotine, said Tony Evans, a marketing specialist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
At least 40 percent of Maryland’s tobacco crop is sold to companies abroad, said Hodge. But he suspects the actual amount sold internationally is higher, because some domestic companies sell to foreign markets.
Some farmers say they still don’t understand why the state sued tobacco makers in the first place.
“I don’t know why the state of Maryland, [which] promoted tobacco for 300 years, would be involved in a lawsuit” against tobacco products, said Walter. “To me, it’s an individual decision [to smoke], and you take the consequences,” Darcey said. “Where does personal responsibility enter into this?” -30-