WASHINGTON - Legislation just passed by Congress abolishes the requirement that the government inspect imported tobacco to ensure it is not laced with chemicals and pesticides banned in the United States but permitted elsewhere.
That means imported leaf, which U.S. tobacco companies are increasingly relying on, could make cigarettes even more harmful, said Tom Glynn, director of science and trends for the American Cancer Society.
Glynn said about 60 of the 4,000 or so chemicals in cigarette smoke are linked to cancer. "What this may do is just add to that number, making an already toxic product even more toxic," he said.
The Agriculture Department, the Homeland Security Department and the Food and Drug Administration all have authority to inspect other imported agricultural products to ensure they meet U.S. standards. Officials at those agencies said they did not know of another agricultural product that comes into this country without some kind of inspection.
U.S. farmers are unhappy about the end of foreign inspections on tobacco. The change was included in legislation that will pay tobacco growers $10 billion and end a Depression-era program that set price and production controls on American-grown leaf.
The tobacco plan is part of a major corporate tax bill that is awaiting President Bush's signature.
The federal tobacco program included foreign and domestic leaf inspections. Lawmakers were reluctant to retain any part of the program, which growers and cigarettes makers had paid for, and did not want the public to cover any of the costs. The legislation requires cigarette makers to fund the buyout.
Growers had complained for years that the old quota system kept their tobacco prices too high to compete with imported tobacco. But they now say they would like assurances their foreign competitors will not try to lower production costs by relying on pesticides such as DDT, which is banned in the United States.
These farmers also say foreign growers use chemicals not permitted in the United States that make tobacco leaves more pliable and easier to harvest.
"If they know it's not going to be inspected, they're going to take the cheapest route whatever that might be," said Rod Kuegel, a tobacco farmer from Owensboro, Ky.
Kuegel worries that growers in developing countries may take this route. African and South American countries are among the leading exporters of tobacco.
Both Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest cigarette manufacturer, and leading rival Reynolds American plan to inspect foreign tobacco that they use and test for outlawed chemicals, company spokesmen said. Philip Morris spokesman Mike Farriss said the costs should be minimal.
Even so, small cigarette manufacturers that sell discount brands are unlikely to conduct such inspections, said Arnold Hamm, assistant general manager of a Raleigh, N.C.-based growers' cooperative.
Lamar DeLoach, president of the Tobacco Growers Association of Georgia, said he is concerned about relying on manufacturers that pledge to test.
"I guess my only problem with that is that other commodities that come into this country have federal inspections, and federal inspections ought to allow the people to know what's coming in," DeLoach said.
"If I'm bringing in bananas, and I just tell the government, 'Well don't worry about inspecting these. I'll do it myself,' how comfortable would you as a consumer feel about me doing that?"
© Copyright 2004 Associated Press