Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Tobacco's Profit, Workers' Loss? (Environews Focus)

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Tobacco's Profit, Workers' Loss? (Environews Focus)

Article excerpt

Tobacco products--cigarettes, cigars, snuff, and chewing tobacco--are well known to pose a serious environmental health threat both to consumers themselves and, in the case of secondhand smoke, to the people around them. Today, vigorous tobacco control activity around the world focuses on curbing tobacco use and, thus, its health effects on consumers. But the tobacco workers who labor to bring the plant to market face another range of environmental health risks--risks largely ignored in the long-running tobacco wars between profit and public health. And because most tobacco, especially in the developing world, is grown on small family farms, the majority of workers are self-employed and thus outside the reach of labor laws that might otherwise protect them.

Tobacco International

In the United States, the federal government historically has encouraged tobacco agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tobacco price support program sets an annual national quota restricting the amount of tobacco that can be grown to that estimated to meet annual domestic and export demand. For those farmers who hold quota allotments, this policy and an accompanying federal loan program keep market prices artificially high. Quotas can be leased and traded and in recent years this has resulted in the concentration of quota allotments in fewer hands, creating some large-scale non-family farming operations.

But the struggle by the U.S. health establishment to reduce Tobacco consumption finally turned the tide, culminating in massive tobacco litigation settlements beginning in 1997. The federal government is now phasing out support for tobacco farming. As U.S. tobacco consumption declines, the tobacco companies, the largest and most influential of which are multinational corporations, are moving both their production and their marketing efforts overseas.

The top three companies, Altria, British American Tobacco (BAT), and Japan Tobacco, have built new manufacturing facilities and encouraged the rapid expansion of tobacco agriculture in many countries, notably Brazil, Mexico, India, China, and Malaysia. Two-thirds of the world's tobacco is grown in just four countries: China, India, Brazil, and the United States. According to Golden Leaf, Barren Harvest, a 2001 report by the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, tobacco production in developing countries grew by 128% between 1975 and 1998.

Traditionally, independent growers have sold their tobacco at annual auctions where tobacco companies compete to buy from many different growers. Under the auction system, tobacco companies do not always buy directly from farmers, but work through intermediary leaf brokers. Recently tobacco companies have begun to shift to a more vertically integrated system.

Altria subsidiary Philip Morris USA is encouraging farmers to sign contracts called "partnering agreements." The contracts eliminate the leaf brokers and allow the growers to bring their crop to the company at their convenience rather than at a preset time as under the auction system, according to Philip Morris USA spokesperson Kim Farlow.

The contract system is predicted by many to further reduce the Economic stature and autonomy of growers. As growers become more dependent on single tobacco companies, they are under more pressure to follow the companies' specifications as to pesticide use and other cultivation protocols. And even under the auction system, in developing countries there is very close collaboration between the tobacco companies and the leaf brokers. Both provide loans, fertilizers, seeds, pesticides, and other materials to growers.

Although there are international agreements and conventions affecting the tobacco industry, none directly address tobacco workers' environmental health issues. In 1999 the World Health Organization (WHO) began work on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). …

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