Sunday, 3 February 2013

The plight of tobacco growers: ASH Scotland misses point of reader's letter

On Wednesday the Herald published a letter drawing attention to the importance of tobacco growing in parts of the world. It reminded readers that while it is worthy to have health goals, the degree to which certain economies depend on tobacco makes the prospect of a non-smoking future troublesome. (In fact, no one wants to be entirely dependent on a single product, and as we hear below it is unlikely that the tobacco industry is likely to shrink any time soon.) The author of this letter, Alex Flett, clearly criticises the anti-smoking agenda of ASH and other bodies in this light:
Are organisations such as Action on Smoking Health, local authorities, the Scottish Government and others going to replace lost dollar income to those countries that desperately need it and help them find other ways to earn hard currency?
Essentially he is asking whether a drive to eradicate smoking is really ethical.

You would think the reply by Sheila Duffy, published the following day, related to a completely different letter. She does not even address the question, 'How ethical is ethical?' in relation to her anti-smoking policies, indeed she opens her own letter, 'Alex Flett is right to raise concerns over the impact of growing tobacco in developing countries'. But this is not what he does.

Sheila Duffy does it however, but not in the most convincing terms:

The tobacco industry argues that it brings economic benefits to tobacco-growing countries. In fact the majority of profits go to the companies, while, as the World Health Organisation points out, tobacco farmers often become trapped in a cycle of poverty and debt. Farmers are forced by tobacco companies to enter into contracts to buy seeds, fertilizer and technical advice and sell their product at a set fee lower than the cost of production.
The tobacco crop's labour-intensive nature means it requires large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, which farmers must buy in advance at great cost. Should crops fail the farmers themselves are liable to cover these costs. This doesn't even take into account the level of damage these chemicals cause when they end up in the soil, waterways, and the food chain. Child labour is also common, with poor families dependent on their children working on tobacco farms from an early age.

This is highly selective activity on the part of the WHO, and highly selective reporting by Sheila Duffy. When I googled 'farmers forced to buy seed at high prices', I got a page of entries about Monsanto and genetically modified agriculture. No doubt this does occur in some tobacco plantations, but pretending that it is unique to the tobacco companies, or that farmers will be safe from it by embarking on some other crop, is extremely irresponsible. (In fact when the antis were talking some time ago about how tobacco companies exploited children, I went to the website of
the International Labour Organization. Not only was there no mention of tobacco but the video on the first page shows a tobacco plantation that is shown as a model enterprise because of the education it offers children whose parents work there.)

Ms Duffy concludes her letter, still without making any reference to the issues raised by Mr Flett. She does however point out beans and maize are less labour-intensive than tobacco – a point no context as she clearly has little knowledge of agriculture.

This brief interview puts some issues in context: President of the International Tobacco Growers Association is interviewed by the BBC. He puts the points:
  1. that the world tobacco market is growing;
  2. that the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has created an uneven playing field since only the signatory countries are bound by it. In the case of tobacco, many major players in the tobacco industry, such as the US, will benefit from any tightening of FCTC provisions, since these big players are not bound by them.
  3. that the World Health Organisation continually freezes tobacco farmers out of opportunities to consult about converting from tobacco to alternative crops.

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