FDA's proposed nicotine reduction could be detrimental for tobacco farmers

FDA taking public comments on proposed reduction

HALIFAX COUNTY, Va. – Garland Comer has 250 acres of tobacco in Halifax County and is the vice president of the Virginia Tobacco Growers Association.

He says the nicotine reduction being discussed could hurt his farm.

"We finished planting here this year. If they came out tomorrow and said the nicotine level's got to be reduced, this could be useless. So we really don't know what to do," Comer said.

Currently, there is no tobacco that naturally produces a small enough amount of nicotine to meet the nicotine standard being discussed by the FDA.

To meet the goal, growers might have to genetically modify their plants, but that creates an entirely different problem.

"The international side does not want any genetically modified plants," Comer said. "So, everything that's going into the processing facility would have to be segregated. If you had GMO, you couldn't sell here. If you had traditional...it would kill your marketing strategy."

Comer said work is being done to create non-genetically modified tobacco that only produces a small amount of nicotine, but making that tobacco viable would be challenging for growers.

"We would have to go back 100 years and start all the variety process over and try to figure this stuff out that we've finally figured out now (for traditional tobacco)," Comer said.

"(The non-genetically modified low nicotine tobacco) would take away all your pounds per acre, the tobacco wouldn't cure good and the insects and stuff that we've bred into these plants to keep them off, it wouldn't have that disease package either."

Less nicotine in tobacco products could cause users to purchase more of the product, which would be great for tobacco growers.

But Comer said that boost would likely be short-lived.

"They would probably do that to start with until they figured out, 'Look, this is killing my pocket to get the exact same thing I was getting before out of one cigarette.' So we think (the nicotine reduction) would hurt the industry," Comer said.

According to the Virginia Farm Bureau, one scenario in the FDA's proposal would reduce the amount of nicotine in combustible tobacco products by about 97 percent.

"It could put us out of business," Lunenberg County tobacco farmer and Flue-Cured Tobacco Advisory Committee member Richard Hite said. 

He encourages all tobacco growers to reach out to their legislators.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over 23,000 acres of tobacco are grown in Virginia, valued at almost $110 million.

"Tobacco is the main money-producing crop on the farm," Hite said. "It's definitely not what it used to be, but it still produces the most income per acre for farmers."

If tobacco growers had to stop growing tobacco, the financial loss would be more than just the loss of the income from the crop.

"You have a lot of equipment for tobacco that is only suited for tobacco. So you've got all this money tied up in infrastructure on your farm," Hite explained.

"If you did go out of business and there was no other market or no other producers that are producing tobacco, then there's nowhere to sell the equipment that you have and there's no use for equipment that you have. That could be very bad for the farming community that grows tobacco." 

The FDA is accepting public comments until June 14 about a possible nicotine reduction.

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