Does tobacco control harm tobacco growers?
KEY MESSAGE: Tobacco control measures do not harm growers. It does not lead to a sudden drop in leaf demand. It is the extremely monopolized tobacco industry that creates a weak bargaining position for farmers, causing poverty and other harms in tobacco farming regions.
What is the issue?
Tobacco industry and industry front groups such as the International Tobacco Growers' Association (ITGA) claim that tobacco control measures, by reducing leaf demand, cause poverty in tobacco producing regions and a desperate situation for smallholders who they claim have no alternative but to grow the crop.
What is the evidence for concern?
- Tobacco farmers' livelihoods are often used as an argument against the introduction of tobacco control measures, e.g. against the ratification of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in Argentina and Malawi, the introduction of graphic health warning labels in India, the ban of small tobacco packets without a transition period in Malaysia and the introduction of a comprehensive tobacco control bill in Uganda. In the case of the adoption of plain packaging in countries like Ireland, Australia and France,the protest originated in tobacco growing countries such as the USA or Indonesia. It is claimed that these tobacco control measures could lead to a reduction in leaf demand and increase illicit trade as well as pressure on prices .
- The tobacco industry, through its front group ITGA, time and again mobilises farmers to oppose regulations related to the implementation of the FCTC. For example, when guidelines for the FCTC Articles 9 and 10 (on contents of tobacco products) were on the agenda of the 4th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP4) in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in 2010, the ITGA staged a global campaign and promoted misinformation that the guidelines would mean a ban of certain types of tobacco, putting millions of farmers out of work. Furthermore, COP4 delegations from several tobacco growing countries included representatives of Tobacco Boards and Ministries of Agriculture and voiced opposition to the draft Guidelines for Articles 9 and 10 with the aim to delay a decision. The European tobacco growers' association UNITAB supported the protest campaign and wrote a letter to the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso .
- After the 6th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP6) in Moscow, Russia, in 2014, Philip Morris International (PMI) congratulated its staff for successfully lobbying on a watering down of the recommendations for Article 17 and 18 (on alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers and tobacco workers' health): "recommendations that governments should seek to shift tobacco farmers to alternative livelihoods have been removed. This is a very positive result" .
- Internal PMI documents speak of the arrangement of farmers' protests in the run-up to the 7th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP7) in New Delhi, India, in 2016. It is not known if PMI in fact arranged such protests, but tobacco farmers together with the tobacco industry led Tobacco Institute of India, sent a 6,000 page petition to the Indian government and farmers protested in front of WHO offices, demanding to be protected from FCTC regulations .
- The International Union of Tobacco Growers (UNITAB), which represents European tobacco farmers and is sponsored by the tobacco industry, lobbied against the development of the European Union Tobacco Products Directive (TPD), which regulates the production and sale of tobacco in the EU. This came into force in 2014, after a 5 year delay partly due to the lobbying efforts of the tobacco industry and industry-related front groups. UNITAB's Secretary General François Vedel argued that the proposed TPD provisions would benefit the mafia and destroy rural employment .
- Scaremongering messages were also promoted around the development and adoption of recommendations for Articles 17 and 18 that specifically aim at supporting alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers and workers. It was wrongly claimed that these recommendations would ban or restrict tobacco farming .
- Tobacco control is often presented as being pitted against economic and development goals such as the fight against poverty and hunger that is important for many tobacco farming regions in the Global South, where 90% of tobacco leaf is grown. It is then claimed that tobacco control would have disastrous consequences for tobacco growing countries such as Malawi, which derives 50% of foreign exchange earnings from leaf exports. This Southeast African country, which is not a Party to the FCTC, is often found at the center of a narrative that exaggerates the effects of tobacco control. The narrative states that regulations would cause an instant drop in leaf demand without alternative income opportunities, and is summarized as "No Tobacco, no life in Malawi" .
- In September 2017, the PMI funded Foundation for a Smoke-Free World was created. PMI will support the foundation with about $80m a year for the next 12 years for research in electronic nicotine delivery systems and alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers. All major tobacco control organizations, including the WHO and the FCTC Secretariat have condemned the foundation as yet another avenue of tobacco industry interference in tobacco control policymaking. The foundation's targeting of tobacco farmers is concerning. It is worth noting that the alleged aims of the Foundation are contradicted by PMI's internal stance towards alternative livelihoods: After COP6 in 2014, the company celebrated that it had succeeded to convince governments not to seek alternatives for tobacco farmers (see above) .
What is the reality?
- The majority of global tobacco leaf production is traded internationally, and controlled by a very small number of multi-national companies, therefore tobacco control measures in any one country are unlike to impact on tobacco farmers in that country. Exceptions are China, where most of the tobacco production is consumed domestically, the local production and consumption of bidis in India, and in Argentina, where farmers receive subsidies from taxes on local cigarette consumption. Thus, in only a very small number of countries, national tobacco control measures affect the country's own growers.
- On the basis of current trends, global tobacco consumption, and therefore leaf demand, is likely to slowly decline over the next decades, slowed down in part by factors independent from tobacco control such as population growth and rising incomes in low- and middle-income countries that make cigarettes more affordable. The current generation of tobacco growers will remain largely unaffected by tobacco control measures. As the reduction is already happening but it is slow, there is time to start implementing measures to support the weakest link in the tobacco chain, tobacco growers .
- Even when the majority of leaf production is for domestic use, a reduction of tobacco prevalence in the country would likely free household resources in formerly smoking households that create demand in other industries, thereby also supporting alternative livelihoods for tobacco growers and workers .
- The tobacco industry claims to benefit countries by tobacco farming. Often, the same countries are the ones that bear the highest burden of the global tobacco epidemic - low- and middle-income countries, where 80% of tobacco related deaths occur. In addition to the tragic consequences for affected families, the tobacco epidemic causes direct and indirect costs to governments, economy and society. In Indonesia alone, diseases caused by smoking run up a bill of US$ 7 billion in direct and indirect costs every year. Nevertheless, the tobacco industry continues to aggressively promote smoking to youth and other vulnerable groups and undermines tobacco control policy through all possible means, including direct and hidden lobbying tactics, threats, bribery and costly international lawsuits .
- The implementation of strict tobacco control measures in a majority of countries with high tobacco consumption rates will ultimately lead to a reduction in global leaf demand and gradual decline of jobs in tobacco farming in the next decades. Tobacco industry technology developments can have a more immediate effect, independent from tobacco control measures. Over the past decades, the industry has managed to reduce the amount of tobacco leaf necessary for cigarette production, using technologies such as dry ice expanded tobacco ("DIET"). Since the 1960s, global tobacco leaf production has doubled, while the number of cigarettes has tripled .
- Prices and demand for tobacco leaf are controlled by two multinational leaf buying companies and a handful of multinational cigarette companies. The industry's corporate strategies include putting tobacco farmers in a weak bargaining position and shifting production to countries and regions with lowest labour costs and environmental standards. It has an interest in leaf oversupply to be able to control prices and leaf buying companies have repeatedly been found to collude on prices, e.g. in Malawi, Spain and Italy. To subsidise the low prices they are paid by the companies, farmers often use the unpaid labour of their children, in violation of ILO Convention No 182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Tobacco production has a negative impact on several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as "No Poverty", "Zero Hunger", "Good Health and Well-Being", "Quality Education" and "Life On Land" (goals 1, 2, 3, 4, and 15) .
- The International Tobacco Growers' Association (ITGA) is not a legitimate representation of tobacco smallholder farmers and workers. It is a tobacco industry front group that was promoted by British American Tobacco and other cigarette companies with the aim to use its "integrity" against tobacco control policies, and to "ensure growers stick to politics and do not seek to use the global organization to gang up on manufacturers", as the 1988 ITGA concept of the tobacco industry think tank INFOTAB reads. Tobacco companies are supporting members of ITGA even to the present day, affecting ITGA's stance on growers' rights to decent pay and other labour rights .
- Sustainable alternatives to tobacco growing are already being implemented in a number of tobacco growing countries worldwide, e.g. a national diversification programme in Brazil, bamboo growing and processing in Kenya, kenaf production in Malaysia, food crops in Bangladesh and stevia cultivation in the European Union. International cooperation and more research is conducted with, among others, support from the European Union. Countries like Malawi and Zimbabwe need more urgent support on alternatives – not because of tobacco control measures and reduction in leaf demand, but because of the economic dependency on tobacco exports that makes these countries vulnerable to fluctuations in global leaf demand and tobacco industry pressure on prices that have contributed to a major economic crisis in Malawi in 2011 .
- High-income countries should support tobacco growing countries to invest in researching and stepping up extension services to introduce alternative crops or livelihoods. The Global North has a special obligation since the largest part of the burden of tobacco production and consumption is borne by the Global South, while profits (and therefore taxes) from tobacco multinationals flow to the Global North. Further South-South and triangular cooperation is necessary, and in line with Articles 17, 18, 20 and 26 of the FCTC and the UN Sustainable Development Goal 17 (Global Partnership) .
- When tobacco control measures are being discussed and implemented in a tobacco growing country or during sessions of the Conference of the Parties of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC COPs), tobacco industry and farmers' groups often argue that they will reduce income or even ban the farming of tobacco, alleging that tobacco is a lucrative crop that helps alleviate poverty.
- Tobacco control measures are leading to a slow decline in leaf demand mostly from non tobacco growing countries, but not a sudden drop. The majority of tobacco leaf is traded internationally, therefore a decline in consumption in an individual country has little impact on tobacco farmers in that country.
- Tobacco companies' pricing and other strategies put farmers in a weak bargaining position and cause poverty, food insecurity and child labour in tobacco farming regions. There are several models of implementing sustainable alternative livelihoods, in line with Article 17 of the FCTC, already implemented in several countries, but more research and pilot projects are needed to be ready to help farmers be prepared ahead of leaf demand declines in future.
- The WHO regards the PMI funded Foundation for a Smoke-Free World and all projects or parties associated with it as an arm of the tobacco industry. As such, cooperation with them is prohibited for WHO and all Parties to the FCTC under Article 5.3 of the convention.
- The major threat posed over time by tobacco to any country remains the threat to the health of smokers and those affected by second-hand smoke, and the associated health, environmental and social costs.
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