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The government is spending millions of dollars to help the tobacco industry find new markets overseas as health-conscious smokers across the United States kick the habit.

The Agriculture Department recently decided to give $3.5 million this year to a group of Southeastern tobacco growers to promote the use of U.S. tobacco in foreign countries.Tobacco Associates already has spent $3.36 million in federal money since 1987 helping government-owned cigarette monopolies in Turkey, Taiwan and Korea make a smoother, American-blended cigarette.

The grants are part of a $200 million-a-year program to promote U.S. foods and farm products overseas. For the tobacco industry, export markets have become increasingly important as more Americans shun smoking.

"There is a significant smoking population in the world, and there's a growing demand for a high-quality American blend cigarette. We want them to contain as much American tobacco as possible," said Kirk Wayne, president of Tobacco Associates. The group includes growers of flue-cured tobacco from Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Total exports of U.S. tobacco last year were estimated at $1.5 billion, up from $1.4 billion in 1990.

"Without question, there was over $50 million worth of new sales generated last season alone as a direct result of our program," Wayne said.

The number of U.S. smokers has dropped 32 percent in the last 22 years, according to the American Heart Association.

Critics object to using federal money on tobacco.

"It's outrageous that taxpayers are subsidizing death in this country. It's even more outrageous that the government is using taxpayers' money to promote death abroad," Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., said.

USDA officials, however, say Congress has ordered the department to promote farm products - and tobacco is just that.

"Unless someone makes a judgment that the Agriculture Department should not assist tobacco farmers, we're going to promote the product," said Steve Censky, associate administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service.

Backers of the program also stress that the money is being used only for technical assistance and not for promoting cigarettes to consumers.

"We should be spending our limited federal dollars to promote agricultural products which offer health and nutrition to other nations and not to promote tobacco, which causes death and disease," Rep. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said.