Feds to give tobacco farmers up to $100 million in COVID-19 aid

The feds are planning to dole out up to $100 million in government aid to tobacco farmers affected by the coronavirus pandemic, a new report says.

The US Department of Agriculture will distribute the money as part of a $14 billion effort to help struggling farmers that’s funded by the CARES Act, the massive stimulus bill Congress passed in March, Reuters reported Wednesday.

Federal law bars tobacco farmers from receiving money from the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation, or CCC, which pays out most of the nation’s crop subsidies. But USDA will get around that by routing the money through a new account set up in Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office, according to Reuters.

The USDA subtly mentioned that tobacco growers would be eligible for federal aid in a Friday news release announcing the second round of its so-called Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which will run through Dec. 11.

The program’s website notes that tobacco is a “unique commodity” because the funds were authorized by the CARES Act rather than the CCC.

The USDA’s move won praise from Republican lawmakers in North Carolina, the nation’s leading tobacco producer and a key battleground state in the 2020 presidential election. Five members of Congress from the state — including Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr — urged Perdue in an April letter to distribute CARES Act money to ailing tobacco growers.

“Our tobacco growers are critical to North Carolina’s rural communities,” US Rep. David Rouzer, who also signed the April letter, said in a statement last week. “Like the rest of our farm families, they have suffered greatly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and face major challenges.”

But health advocates reportedly raised concerns about shoring up the tobacco industry while a deadly virus that attacks the lungs continues to kill Americans. Some research has indicated that smokers are more likely to catch COVID-19, though other studies have generated conflicting findings.

“It is particularly troubling that in the midst of this pandemic … the federal government would do more to promote tobacco as opposed to helping smokers quit,” Erika Sward, national assistant vice president of advocacy for the American Lung Association, told Reuters.

With Post wires

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