By Max Blau
Burley tobacco once lined nearly every road in Shelby County, Kentucky. But when Paul Hornback drives through his hometown, the 62-year-old tobacco farmer rarely sees the leafy crop.
Despite his fears about the threat that legislation might pose to tobacco farming, long the lifeblood of his community, Hornback supports the push to ban teenagers from buying cigarettes.
Last month, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who co-sponsored a bill to raise the purchasing age limit for traditional and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21, said the changes were “not a zero-sum choice” between health and agriculture. Hornback, who serves as a Republican state lawmaker in Kentucky, agrees.
“I believe public health can win — and farmers can win,” Hornback said. He thinks tobacco growers could diversify their crops, improving their long-term economic outlook, while seeing a potential improvement in teen health.
Faced with declining U.S. cigarette consumption, along with an increasingly competitive international market, tobacco farmers in states such as Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia are bracing for the potential impact of a federal Tobacco 21, or “T-21,” bill. Since the mid-2000s, more than a dozen states and nearly 500 cities have passed similar legislation. But it wasn’t until the past year that T-21 gained traction in Southern states including Arkansas, Virginia and Texas.
Large tobacco companies, once opposed to raising the minimum tobacco-buying age, now support state and federal T-21 legislation. That about-face has worried some activists, who fear industry lobbying efforts behind such laws are intended to gut stronger local tobacco regulations.
Beyond the U.S. Capitol and statehouses, however, Southern farmers are left to figure out what comes next. Some tobacco farmers wary of T-21 think the legislation is the latest threat to one of the region’s legacy crops. Others, like Hornback, voiced support for legislation designed to reduce teen smoking.
Tony Banks, a commodity-marketing specialist for the Virginia Farm Bureau, thinks it’s only a matter of time before T-21 passes on a federal level. But as the country moves closer to that point, agricultural experts worry that the public health initiative could force farmers to grow less tobacco or push them out of the business.
“T-21 is probably inevitable,” Banks said. “But it’s another step in the direction of hastening declines in cigarette consumption. And it’s another cut to [tobacco farmers’] production and income.”
A healthier tobacco country
Tobacco farmers helped drive the economies of Southern states for centuries. Two kinds of tobacco — burley and flue-cured — fueled U.S. export markets well into the 1970s.
But growing awareness from Americans of smoking’s link to cancer, along with the rise of international markets, sent domestic tobacco production in reverse.
Following the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, federal lawmakers passed a tobacco buyout as part of the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act in 2004.
It forced tobacco companies to pay billions of dollars to growers as part of the government’s deregulation of the industry, and allowed some farmers to relinquish their tobacco production quotas.
The legislation was intended to help growers compete against international competitors. But China’s tariffs on American tobacco have in part offset those gains.
Despite Southern tobacco farmers’ economic presence across the region, they also have witnessed long-term health consequences. North Carolina, which produces more tobacco than any other state, ranks eighth in youth cigarette smoking rates. The second-highest tobacco producer, Kentucky, is nearly tied for the highest level of youth cigarette use.
Behind those states comes Virginia, which has lower smoking rates that mirror the national average, but has faced criticism from the American Lung Association for its inadequate policies for cessation funding and smoke-free air. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not have statewide data for 11 states.)
McConnell thinks his T-21 bill would help combat rising vaping rates among teens, while also addressing Kentucky’s nation-leading cancer rates. That’s a mission that tobacco farmers can rally behind — without feeling like they’re left behind, he said.
“I haven’t met a tobacco farmer yet who didn’t think this was a good idea,” McConnell said in a recent radio interview with WKYX. (His spokesperson did not make McConnell available for an interview with Stateline.) “Tobacco has been an important part of our culture. That doesn’t mean that people who grow tobacco think youngsters ought to use.”
While some public health advocates have aligned with Big Tobacco to advance hundreds of laws nationwide, other groups remain suspicious of those companies’ intentions. A recent investigation from the Center for Public Integrity found that tobacco lobbyists have funded a “blitzkrieg” in which hundreds of lobbyists have sought to advance state-level bills.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who co-sponsored the federal bill, thinks conservative tobacco farmers and progressive health activists can support T-21 to “keep tobacco products out of schools and away from our children.” Virginia is home to one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris Companies.
William Paterson University economics professor Rahi Abouk said his research on local T-21 laws nationwide has found only limited reductions in smoking rates. But in a recent op-ed in the Courier Journal, McConnell further pitched Kentuckians on the idea of T-21.
“When it comes to tobacco, Kentuckians acknowledge our past and the role the historic crop still plays for a number of farmers today,” McConnell wrote. “But we must also recognize the growing public health crisis of teenage vaping. Kentucky farmers don’t want their children developing unhealthy addictions any more than any other parent.”
‘Tobacco is still king’
Steve Pratt, the manager of a co-op with tobacco growers in five states, said he supports policies that keep kids away from cigarettes. But he doesn’t share the same rosy outlook as McConnell or Hornback, in part because such legislation would lower tobacco demand.
“Obviously, anything that’s going to cause people to stop smoking is going to cause a decline in demand for burley tobacco,” Pratt said. “From that perspective, it’s definitely not going to help the tobacco farming industry.”
Blake Brown, an economics professor at North Carolina State University’s cooperative extension, said T-21 marks the latest in a long line of threats that have chiseled into the once vibrant trade.
For decades, tobacco farmers have been hit by the confluence of a 3% annual drop in U.S. cigarette consumption and the rise of tobacco production in Brazil, China and Zimbabwe.
Most recently, President Donald Trump’s trade war has pummeled North Carolina tobacco farmers who have temporarily lost business with some of their biggest clients.
If McConnell’s bill is successful, “you’ll have fewer young people start smoking,” Brown said. “In the scheme of things — tariffs and other regulations — T-21 is fairly small. It might accelerate the trend of declined cigarette consumption.”
In February, Kentucky tobacco farmer and Republican state Sen. Stan Humphries pushed back against Kentucky’s state-level T-21 bill. During a Kentucky Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, a lawmaker proposed a bill that would have raised the smoking age to 21, arguing that Kentucky footed a $2 billion bill annually for tobacco-related sicknesses, and attendees offered a standing ovation.
But Humphries argued that the regulation posed a threat to the already-shrinking tobacco industry. The Republican-controlled committee voted against the bill. “Where I come from, tobacco is still king,” Humphries said.
But since 2004, the year of the tobacco buyout, Pratt estimates the number of burley tobacco farmers in the states he represents — Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and West Virginia — has dropped from 175,000 to 3,000.
Last year, burley tobacco farmers planned to grow the fewest acres on record, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because of that data, Pratt can’t see a silver lining for additional regulations like T-21.
“That’s not going to be a win-win for tobacco farmers,” Pratt said.
Uncertain road forward
As T-21 spreads across the country, many tobacco experts think it will further push tobacco farmers toward crop diversification.
Banks said Virginia tobacco farmers are growing more wheat, soybeans and industrial hemp. And farmers in eastern North Carolina have increasingly shifted toward a mix of sweet potatoes, hogs, poultry and tobacco. But Brown worries the move away from the profitable crop of tobacco means farmers will no longer have a strong safety net during harsher economic times.
“If nothing else was OK, tobacco would get them through it,” Brown said. “In east North Carolina, farmers now don’t talk about being a ‘tobacco farmer.’ They’re a farmer — an astute businessman — who grows a diverse mix.”
While Banks has concerns about the negative economic impact of Virginia’s T-21 — in Virginia and beyond — he fears that it’s a sign of things to come. Pending U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposals to lower addictive substances in cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products could create an “unfeasible” environment for tobacco growers, Banks said.
Having spent nearly all his life in tobacco, Hornback has accepted the inevitable shift. Tobacco once made up 60% of his business. Now it accounts for 15%.
At this point, he doesn’t just grow a larger variety of crops — he’s even taken on construction work, too. Despite the constant threat to tobacco growers, Hornback thinks tobacco farming will survive, even if it’s serving a niche market.
“Tobacco farmers have adapted and adjusted before,” Hornback said. “But tobacco is not going away.”