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Farmers Keen On Tobacco Ruling, But It Won't Save Stunted Crops

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DURHAM COUNTY — The Food and Drug Administration is no longer in the business of regulating the golden leaf, and while farmers are generally pleased about the ruling, they say that their sick crops are making 1998 a tough year on the farm.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling that set down a long list of guidelines, regulating tobacco sales in stores and vending machines. It included many restrictions on sales to minors. The appellate court says that Congress never intended to give the FDA the right to regulate tobacco.

Most tobacco farmers consider it a victory when the FDA loses authority to regulate tobacco. Third-generation Durham County tobacco farmer Steve Holder has 103 acres of tobacco in the ground this year. He considers the FDA's loss his gain.

"Well, I think they ought to stay out of it," says Holder. "They've already got their fingers in it enough." He says, the more the FDA gets involved in something, usually the more paperwork he has to complete.

But, government restrictions aside, heat and dry skies have put many crops in critical condition. Plenty of farmers have watched their crops wither away this summer, during the hottest July on record. And, while many farmers would call Friday's ruling one less burden for them, they're still trying to deal with a bad growing season.

Holder says that his crops are only about half as big as they should be by this point in the season.

But, away from court and down on the farm, farmers say that Friday's ruling doesn't change the outlook on the future.

Holder thinks that the tobacco companies have enough money to fight off any efforts to get rid of tobacco. But, he's not optimistic about the future of the smaller farm.

"I think it's going to be just like hog farming and chicken farming. You're going to see it all get in the hands of big farmers. Little farmers are going to fizzle right on out in the next ten years."

The FDA has been involved in tobacco for only a year. A District Court judge ruled in April 1997 that nicotine is a drug and can be regulated by the FDA.

Up until that ruling, the FDA had claimed for more than 80 years that tobacco did not fall within its authority.

The Justice Department plans to appeal Friday's appellate court ruling.