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Tobacco buy-out doesn’t end smoking ills

I smoked cigarettes for one day in my life, when I was 16. Fortunately for me, I mixed them with room temperature Old Vienna, turned green, and swore off cigarettes forever.

Some people aren't so lucky.

Take my dad. He was a smoker, and he died suddenly from a heart attack when he was 49. He was a game warden. That's hardly a sedentary desk job, which some people associate with premature death. My family never recovered.

Then there's my older brother, also a smoker. Or, I'm proud and relieved to say, former smoker.

I spent the first part of this summer with him in Hamilton General Hospital, watching him come back from the grave after quadruple bypass surgery.

The operating team leader said they had a hard time getting his heart fibrillated after the surgery, because there'd been so much damage done. He was a star swimmer in university. He's had a pipe or cigarette in his mouth ever since.

Finally, there's my older sister. She's a diabetic and can't stop smoking, despite pleas, rational arguments and angry words. She's in denial, she's addicted and there's every reason to believe smoking will catch up with her, too.

Maybe the Lung Association can back me up on this, but I'm pretty sure family stories like mine are not unusual. And if that's the case, then no wonder mixed emotions have prevailed for the past couple of weeks over the federal government's decision to finally buy out Ontario tobacco farmers with a $300-million program.

The money will help tobacco growers get out of farming altogether, or transition to other crops. There is some funding in the package for community development, too, to acknowledge tobacco farming's role in rural Ontario.

Tobacco farmers have been asking for this kind of a program for at least four years. They've watched their markets falter while cheap tobacco production and manufacturing grew elsewhere (Mexico, for example), tobacco taxes soared, smuggling persisted and the public sentiment against smoking escalated.

The province stepped up with $50 million in support two years ago, and the industry hoped help from Ottawa might not be far behind. Frustration and confusion grew when it wasn't.

Finally, on the first of this month at the Delhi Tobacco Auction Exchange, federal agriculture and agri-food minister Gerry Ritz stepped to the plate and delivered the program.

The absence of a domestic tobacco sector won't stop people from smoking and dying of smoking-related illnesses. But oddly enough, it seems Ontario tobacco farmers never felt any heat for their contributions to poor health, even though the product begins with them. There've been no significant protests against the buyout, either.

I think that's because most people see tobacco farmers separately from the tobacco industry. Consider the dark side of the business, the recent $1.1 billion in penalties levied against Imperial Tobacco Canada and Rothmans Benson & Hedges for their role in skirting federal excise taxes. We don't see the same kind of lawbreaking accusations levelled against farmers.

Nor should we. Tobacco farmers have been growing a legal product for decades, and governments have been taxing the daylights out of that product.

To farmers, that was just cause for asking for help, especially from Ottawa. Communities and cultures had grown around tobacco farming. Getting out of the business meant more than just switching commodities.

But farmers have to grow something. Research supported mainly by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has been underway to help them find alternative crops (Delhi-area soil is sandy and not all crops fare well). They've experienced some success with ginseng, although markets have been erratic.

Here's a new opportunity for farmers and researchers to focus their efforts.

There's no longer any doubt about whether the tobacco farming industry will go. The question is what will replace it.

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.

OWEN ROBERTS

Owen Roberts – journalist, columnist, educator – provides an urban perspective on agri-food issues.

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