Voting on tobacco

June 19, 2009 

Tobacco has been big business in North Carolina for centuries, with farms and production companies playing a key role in the state's economy. But established links of tobacco to deadly disease, along with a reduction of the political power of tobacco state members of Congress, have long forecast tougher regulation, more taxes and now, oversight of tobacco under the Food and Drug Administration.

Even in this state, first in the country in tobacco production, the cigarette tax has been increased and more localities are stiffening rules about smoking in public places.

Bob Etheridge of Lillington, whose 2nd District includes part of Wake County and a semi-circle of counties around it to the south and east, is a former tobacco farmer from a tobacco-growing area, and with his vote to approve the FDA regulation of tobacco he can expect some heat. But his vote was the right move, and a realistic one as well. He was joined by fellow North Carolina Democratic Reps. David Price, Brad Miller, G.K. Butterfield and Mel Watt.

The jury is no longer out on the dangers of tobacco (once a favorite catch-phrase of tobacco industry lobbyists), and many families that once relied on the golden leaf for their livings have long since diversified their crops. Some have sold land to housing developers or become developers themselves. They know that the mood of the country, and of Congress, isn't likely to change.

The FDA certainly will increase regulation, with stronger warning labels and possibly limits on chemicals in cigarettes. The relatively few restaurants, for example, that have permitted smoking in some sections are increasingly shutting those sections down. And tobacco has some vehement foes on Capitol Hill.

Etheridge says he'll still be looking out for tobacco farmers. They're constituents, and that's OK. But he tied his vote to his other previous political life as state superintendent of public instruction and his responsibility to protect children. When that is in the balance, the issue is no contest.

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