The effect of tobacco production and use in developing countries has many economic, political and health repercussions, all explored in the programme. For example, how do you monitor the use of child labour on tobacco farms? How can the Government afford tackling smoking-related health issues when there is already an HIV and malaria epidemic? How can you avoid the negative health side effects of farming the crop? How can you suppress advertising cigarettes when an economy depends on tobacco crops? How can you encourage farmers to diversify the crops they grow when tobacco is the most lucrative? All these big questions are addressed with statistics in the programme, but what struck me first of all was now that the UK is becoming more aware of the need for fair trade produce, why are we not pushing for the same with our cigarettes?
Despite the large sums of money made by cigarette companies (BAT’s 2009 profit was close to $4.5bn for example), farmers in countries such as Malawi and Uganda are still struggling to survive. The farmers receive no profit, and can spend more on pesticides and transport than they will receive from selling the crop. In a desperate bid to raise cash for food and education, they sell their tobacco to middle-men for as little as 5 cents per kilo, way below the minimum price of $2 set by the Government each year.
Middle-men are in fact illegal in Malawi, and is just one of the measures introduced to try and combat this injustice. However, like many developing countries whose economies depend on exportable goods, they’re often at the mercy of international companies.
So here’s where fair trade could come into play. The profile and popularity of fair trade products has risen in the UK, with some retailers now only stocking the fair trade version of goods such as bananas. Whilst there is still a long way to go, the effect of fair trade produce on farmers in developing countries should not be underestimated. The improvements have gone beyond economics, to other parts of the farmers lives such as health, empowerment, business and environment and farming systems:
Despite the decline in UK smokers, cigarettes will always be a necessity to people in this country. So why not produce a fair trade cigarette to help the lives of the tobacco growers? I searched for them and the nearest thing I could find was ‘ethically-sourced’ 1st Nation cigarettes. They were denied fair trade accreditation by the Fairtrade Foundation on the basis that tobacco is too politically sensitive crop for the organization to engage with:
Of course there are ethical and moral arguments against fair trade cigarettes, which could affect the credibility of the organization. Perhaps we should be looking at the bigger picture and find a way to reduce the dependence on tobacco, but that’s not the day-to-day concerns of tobacco growing farmers. They have no say in how the macro-economic structure of their country is built. So whilst I understand the concerns and possible contradiction in fair trade tobacco, I can’t help feeling that the livelihoods of thousands of farmers in the developing world deserve some help, and paying the farmers a fair price for their tobacco may be a start.