More than 20 years ago, dozens of states and the major cigarette makers reached a master settlement in a federal lawsuit against the industry for misleading the public about the dangers of smoking and for the costs to the taxpayer of treating tobacco users. States received billions of dollars from the industry to settle any and all suits outstanding against the industry for a promise not to take Big Tobacco back to court in the future.

Virginia used its share of the settlement to create what’s known as the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, and over the last two decades, it has doled out more than $1 billion in grants in Southside and Southwest Virginia to spur economic development and ease the regions’ transition from reliance on tobacco as their prime economic driver.

(In Southside Virginia, the main tobacco crop was flue-cured tobacco, while Southwest Virginia was known for its Burley tobacco. The method of sale of tobacco to the industry also changed, from the warehouse auction system to direct contracts between farmers and cigarette manufacturers, an additional blow to the regions’ economies.)

The tobacco commission has funded projects as wide-ranging as the construction of industrial parks and educational initiatives to providing a $20 million grant to Liberty University to assist in the startup costs of LU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. The medical school is located on a part of campus that’s in Campbell County, a tobacco region jurisdiction, which made it eligible for tobacco commission dollars.

LU agreed, in return, to place a high priority on encouraging its graduates to practice in medically underserved regions of the commonwealth, particularly the tobacco region communities. Typically, osteopathic medical schools stress the importance of primary care, something many tobacco region communities are lacking.

That idea of investing in people with skills the state’s tobacco regions need has emerged in an even bigger drive by the commission to reverse the so-called brain drain from Southside and Southwest, as people with skills the communities need have moved away to find economic opportunities elsewhere.

Early on, the commission handed out no-strings $2,000 loans to any tobacco region student headed off to college. The hope was that the student would return after graduation and contribute to the region’s economic rebirth, with the loans then forgiven. But that’s not what happened. Fewer than half returned, a commission official told the Roanoke Times, primarily because the dollar figure was just too low to make much of a difference.

Now, that’s all about to change.

Last Thursday at a meeting in Danville, the tobacco commission board voted to approve a major overhaul of its scholarship program.

Through its Talent Attraction Program, the commission will write a $24,000 check every two years to professionals in certain key jobs who are willing to live in the 40 or so tobacco region communities. Participants have the option of applying for an additional two years and another $24,000. The jobs range from nurses and science and math teachers to industrial and electrical engineers, all vitally important jobs that go unfilled in many rural communities.

The commission also voted to partner with the Virginia Department of Health to expand that agency’s program to attract medical providers to underserved areas. The health department already has a program that awards $140,000 over four years to medical providers who commit to live and work in underserved communities, but it hasn’t been able to fully fund all the applications. Money comes from state and federal sources, as well as the health care industry; now, the tobacco commission will be stepping in to provide the money needed to cover all applications.

According to commission guidelines, anyone from across the country can apply for these Talent Attraction Program dollars, beginning this summer. Preference, though, will be given to applicants with Southside or Southwest roots. The rationale is two-fold: Encourage the development of local talent and lure natives, who know and understand the regions’ unique cultures, to come back home to stay. You can learn more at the tobacco commission’s website, www.revitalizeva.org.

Southside and Southwest Virginia have experienced little, if any, population gains over the last 25 years or so, and the situation certainly wasn’t helped by the utter transformation of the tobacco industry. It will take years of hard work to bring about the changes rural Virginia so desperately needs, and a step as dramatic as this, we hope, is only the start.

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