WASHINGTON — Kentucky burley tobacco farmers and the state's congressional delegation are seeing smoke over a plan by the Canadian government to ban fruit and bubblegum flavors and other similar additives to cigarettes and cigarillos.
The lawmakers and the roughly 8,100 Kentucky farmers who cultivate burley tobacco say the proposal, designed to curb youth smoking, would result in a ban on American air-cured burley tobacco, which is used to make most of the nation's cigarettes.
"One of the biggest things it does is it effectively bans almost all flavoring used in products other than menthol," said Joe Cain, director of national affairs for the Kentucky Farm Bureau. "Where it becomes important to Kentuckians is that American blend cigarettes are about 25 percent burley. Burley gives it texture and body, but it's bitter and kind of harsh. It needs that flavoring to take the edge off of it."
Many growers and their supporters feel their industry is under political assault and are still reeling from last week's congressional passage of legislation that gives the Food and Drug Administration regulatory powers over tobacco.
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Lawmakers who voted against allowing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco and are protesting the Canadian measure include some of the top recipients of campaign contributions from tobacco manufacturers -- Kentucky Republicans Rep. Ed Whitfield of Hopkinsville and Sen. Jim Bunning rank fifth and eighth with $218,935 and $194,166, respectively.
The Canadian measure, which that country's health minister, Leona Aglukkaq, announced earlier this month on the heels of World No Tobacco Day, also requires a 20 pieces per package minimum on cigarillos and an advertising ban in publications generally read by children and young adults.
The Canadian Convenience Stores Association supports the proposal.
Stateside, the measure has lawmakers from tobacco-producing states crying foul.
"While there are reasonable steps that the Canadian Parliament could take to ensure tobacco products such as those with cherry, milk chocolate and banana split flavorings are prohibited, that goal can be achieved without risking the jobs of tobacco growers in the U.S.," Whitfield, Bunning and Reps. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, Canadian-born Geoff Davis, R-Hebron, Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green, and Harold Rogers, R-Somerset, wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.
"If other nations were to follow Canada's lead in banning legitimate products made with burley tobacco, the market for American tobacco could become non-existent outside the United States," they wrote. "And, since 85 percent of burley tobacco is exported, our growers will be put out of business and their communities will be devastated."
Members of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, a coalition of growers that includes burley tobacco producers, are also protesting the Canadian measure.
"No less than the future of the burley tobacco growing industry is at stake. If other countries follow Canada's lead, the market for American-style tobacco products will be nonexistent outside the U.S.," Wayne Pryor, president of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement.
The U.S. Trade Representative's office declined to comment.
According to 2007 figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kentucky ranks second in overall tobacco exports, and the crop pumps $386.4 million into the state's economy. The state is also home to the nation's highest percentage of adult smokers, according to 2007 figures from the Centers for Disease Control.
Earlier this month, Whitfield sent a letter to International Trade Minister Stockwell Day warning that the Canadian bill would violate a number of trade agreements with the United States, including North American Free Trade Agreement, and could negatively impact U.S.-Canada relations.
"At a time when our economy is reeling, the last thing we need from our friends and allies is policies that hurt American industries and endanger jobs," Whitfield said.