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The Hint of a Family Resemblance – Tobacco and Coal
Editor's Note: This article, written several years ago, looks like fortune telling as two candidates for the US Senate slug it out for the title of "Champion of Coal."
(May 12, 2009) - Two Kentucky products that have little in common in their size, shape and purpose, are beginning to look more and more alike all the time.
Coal and tobacco have been mainstays of this agrarian state since its early history. As tobacco begins to exit the main stage, coal is moving into the limelight. Whether coal will suffer the fate of tobacco is a question that policy makers and big thinkers need to confront before there is another gaping maw in the Kentucky budget.
To begin to see the shape of the family resemblance, let’s first look at tobacco.  
            Light up in a restaurant in an urban area and risk the police being called. Cigarettes and their smokers have been sent out to the parking lot and to the back of the building.
            Who would have thought years ago that tobacco use in public would not only be a social gaffe, but an illegal one? Certainly not the federal government that provided mini-packs of cigarettes with soldiers’ K rations. Certainly not the movie industry that used the lighting and sharing of cigarettes as symbols for cool. Certainly not tobacco farmers who depended on the cash crop to pay for equipment, school tuition and Christmas every year. Certainly not big tobacco companies – though they must have seen the handwriting on the wall long before the smoker death lawsuits began to turn toward awards for smokers and their heirs. States, beginning with Mississippi in 1994, got into the act suing to recoup monies spent on sick smokers.   
            Most of the US is rapidly becoming hostile territory for the tobacco industry. Most of the US, except for Kentucky, that is. Big tobacco still shells out big bucks on lobbyists during the General Assembly, spending $78,000 during short session of 2009. There is a great irony that the only group that spent more was the health care industry. Tobacco use in Kentucky still exceeds most of the rest of the country. Tobacco was the state’s biggest export in 2005.  According the World Health Organization, tobacco kills almost half its users. During the 20th century, tobacco use killed 100 million. If the present trend continues, WHO predicts a billion tobacco related deaths.
            Tobacco manufacturers, smokeless or smoky, accepted a tax increase going into effect on 2009, a move that would have been unheard of in sessions past. Kentuckians pay less than smokers in the Northeast and West Coast, but they pay more than they ever have. The stated goal of legislators and health officials who supported the increase is to drive smokers away.
            Tobacco in the US will face even bigger problems when Congress is finally able to use the Federal Drug Administration to regulate it.” The legislation will give the FDA broad powers over the manufacturing and marketing of tobacco, a product used by 20% of Americans yet largely unregulated,” wrote Washington Post staff reporter Lyndsey Layton. For the first time, tobacco companies will have to disclose the ingredients in their products. They will no longer be able to use the terms “light”, “mild” “low” for their cigarettes unless they can prove their claims. Chances Bright for Legislation, May 11, 2009
            The 86 billion dollar tobacco industry is moving quickly away from the rising tide of disapproval and regulation in the developed world to more fertile ground. Most users per capita? Japan with 82% penetration. Top tobacco producing and smoking country? China.
“There are more smokers in China than the entire population of the United States. Dr. Weng Xin Zhi, the executive vice president of the Chinese Association on Smoking and Health, reports that his 1984 National Prevalence Survey of 519,000 people showed "that 61 percent of males and 7 percent of females over 15 years of age smoked, with over 56 percent of male doctors smoking." This represents between 250 and 300 million smokers.” China's Tobacco Wars
            It has been a long war, beginning in 1492 with Christopher Columbus who brought leaves and seeds to Spain from the New World. One of his crew picked up the smoking habit from the natives. When he got home, he was imprisoned by the Inquisition for demonic possession.
            Tobacco is giving up the fight in the developed countries and moving into the third world. There is no such thing as a “safe cigarette” despite the millions of dollars spent to create one. The words together are an oxymoron.
            Which leads one to wonder: is there such a thing as “clean coal”? Or is it too an oxymoron?  
            Dr. Thomas Walker, who built the first cabin in Kentucky, used coal in 1750. Coal has been a big energy source ever since. Coal Education Timeline Kentucky was a leading coal producer until 1988 when Wyoming took the lead. Technology is changing the way coal is removed. The industry is now using giant equipment to dig out large pieces of the landscape, extracting the coal rather than digging it out of the earth.
            Coal production shapes half of the state from the mines and pits of East Kentucky to the deposits of Western Kentucky puts money in miners’ pockets.  Coal is one of the few sectors adding jobs.  The mining sector had 100 more jobs in March 2009. The sector has added 3,100 jobs since March 2008 because of hiring in the coal mining industry.
            Coal swings a big stick at the Capitol. Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor recently warned that the coal would “squeal” if an increase in the coal tax is imposed. According to the Lexington Herald, there has been no increase in the fee structure or coal severance tax in about thirty years.
            Emissions from coal fired plants are being blamed for global climate change. Acid rain caused by sulfur emissions from fall out from the plants produced lawsuits by Connecticut against the coal industry. The program to reduce sulfur emissions in the 1990 Clean Air Act is similar to the newest “cap and trade” program waiting on the tarmac for enactment. The government is now talking about a new “cap and trade” program for carbon dioxide.
            Indiana Rep. Mike Pence (R-6th) called cap and trade “a war on the Midwest” and predicted the average American household would spend $3000 more a year in higher energy costs.
            In March, the Obama administration released a report on coal ash ponds and their chemical composition of arsenic, lead, mercury and boron. Health risks have always been a part of life for coal miners. Black lung, a form of pneumoconiosis produced by coal dust trapped in the lungs, has been a killer of coal miners for many years.
            Scientists are now finding that the death rate for coal production goes out past the mine and the pit. A West Virginia research study found that people living in coal mining communities:
  • have a 70% increased risk for kidney disease
  • have a 64% increased risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • are 30% more likely to report high blood pressure.
  • Hospitalization risks increased in coal communities. For every 1,462 tons of coal mined, COPD risks increased 1%; hypertension hospitalizations went up 1% for every 1,873 tons of coal mined.         

     According to Dr. Michael Hendryx, as coal production increases, so does incidence of chronic diseases. Coal producing chemicals, equipment powered by diesel engines, explosives, toxic impurities in coals, and even dusts from uncovered coal trucks that cause environmental pollution have a negative environmental effect.
Science Daily  

            The coal industry is fighting back. An editorial in the April 26th Courier Journal written by Vic Staffieri, Chairman of E.ON US, argues that Kentuckians will pay between 40 – 80% more for their electricity if cap and trade is put into effect. Mr. Staffieri wrote “A climate change has been developing over the past few years that could dramatically affect the lives of every Kentuckian. The “climate” is not atmospheric, but political and social – growing sentiment toward reducing the role of coal in electric generation. (emphasis added). Mr. Staffieri wrote that “Although cost effective solutions are years away, we have pledged to work with industry experts on technologies that could reduce or contain CO².” 

            Coal executives should by now be feeling the same cold chill up their spines that tobacco executives felt when Mississippi filed a lawsuit against their industry in 1994. The tobacco industry had years to fight back against the scaredy cats who said they were killing people. The coal industry may not have that long. The Internet and a younger generation that is growing up revering Earth Day may bring the industry to a difficult place faster than it ever planned. Children are drawing pictures of wind turbines and sunshine when the word “energy” is brought up. That bodes ill for the coal industry.
            Where once their industry didn’t need to advertise, there was no other game in town for electric generation, now the coal industry is joining the oil industry in a series of warm puppy ad campaigns. Ads for clean coal are mocked by environmental groups on television.
            In March 2008, Jeff Biggers wrote an editorial entitled “Clean Coal, Don’t Try to Shovel That” in the Washington Post:  Biggers wrote:
            “Orwellian language has led to Orwellian politics. With the imaginary vocabulary of "clean coal," too many Democrats and Republicans, as well as a surprising number of environmentalists, have forgotten the dirty realities of extracting coal from the earth. Pummeled by warnings that global warming is triggering the apocalypse, Americans have fallen for the ruse of futuristic science that is clean coal. And in the meantime, swaths of the country are being destroyed before our eyes.
            Here's the hog-killing reality that a coal miner like Burl or my grandfather knew firsthand: No matter how "cap 'n trade" schemes pan out in the distant future for coal-fired plants, strip mining and underground coal mining remain the dirtiest and most destructive ways of making energy.  
            Coal ain't clean. Coal is deadly.”  
            The wind is blowing away from coal. Just as it blew away from tobacco. Coal executives have a choice. They can follow tobacco and fight a rear guard action, retreating off shore to friendly clime. They can frighten legislators and consumers with dire predictions of bad things to come. They can spend millions of dollars buying Kentucky’s other premiere product – bourbon – at receptions in Frankfort.  
            Coal executives are smart people. They see the handwriting on the wall. Change is not coming to the coal industry in the same old incremental way it came to its country cousin, tobacco.
            Change is here. Now.

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