Asia’s tobacco growers pitted against WHO

Tobacco growers from Indonesia, Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and India are up in arms over a World Health Organization (WHO) proposal that they claim would kill as much as 50 million jobs in the tobacco industry and related fields around the world.

The first Asia Tobacco Forum, held in the Indonesian capital last week, discussed proposed guidelines under the WHO Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) that would ban the use of ingredients, such as sweeteners, stimulants and spices, to reduce the attractiveness of tobacco products.

Tobacco growers from the six Asian countries signed a formal declaration opposing the FCTC proposal for its potentially devastating effect on the industry, its lack of scientific basis and its violation of international trade laws.

Association, and Soedaryanto, chairman of the Indonesia Tobacco Community Alliance, talk to reporters at the conclusion of the two-day Asia Tobacco Conference in Jakarta, Tuesday.

Association, and Soedaryanto, chairman of the Indonesia Tobacco Community Alliance, talk to reporters at the conclusion of the two-day Asia Tobacco Conference in Jakarta, Tuesday.

Roger Quarles, president of the International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA), said the proposal would have a serious impact on the jobs and livelihood of millions of tobacco farmers and workers in related areas.

“We urge all governments to reject the proposal to ban tobacco ingredients and to investigate other alternatives that can achieve public health goals while protecting the millions of jobs dependent on tobacco growing,” he said. The ITGA is an organization of tobacco growers from 22 countries, representing 85 percent of the world’s tobacco production.

The WHO FCTC is a treaty aimed at stopping the global tobacco epidemic. Proposed guidelines including Articles 9 and 10, which deal with ingredient bans in tobacco products, will be taken up during the next WHO FCTC meeting in Uruguay in November.

However, tobacco growers have questioned the proposed guidelines for their lack of scientific basis, since the FCTC assumes the ingredients are being added to enhance the appeal of tobacco products.

The growers noted these ingredients are essential components of traditional blended or American-style cigarettes, which account for half of the global market for such products.

These traditional blended cigarettes, containing a combination of burley, Virginia and Oriental tobaccos, need extra ingredients to make the blend come together. Without the additives, they would not be palatable.

They fear the proposed FCTC guidelines would effectively lead to the elimination of these traditional blended cigarettes from the world market. Once this happens, burley growers say demand for their produce will fall and their industry would immediately be decimated.

Soedaryanto, chairman of the Indonesia Tobacco Community Alliance (AMTI), also criticized the lack of transparency in the FCTC discussions. He noted tobacco growers in Asia, who are already some of the poorest in their countries, have been excluded from discussions, even though they will be the most affected by the WHO proposal.

“No other crop currently exists that can provide similar economic benefits to those communities,” he said.

Soedaryanto said the group will lobby with the Indonesian government to urge other countries to reject these measures. Indonesia has not ratified the FCTC.

There will be a significant impact not just on the tobacco growers, but also for the countries’ fiscal revenues and employment in other industries.

Tobacco growers in India, Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand produce 1 million metric tons of tobacco leaf and $33 billion in finished products. Around 50 million jobs are linked to these countries’ tobacco industries, which generated tax revenues of more than $16 billion in 2009.

Korean tobacco growers are also expected to feel the pinch, since there are around 7,000 families involved in growing tobacco, half of which is burley. Burley production in Korea is estimated at 8,000 tons a year, worth 64 billion won.

“The proposal will do serious damage to the Korean tobacco industry. Many of the households are from the older generation, whose income depends fully on tobacco. It won’t be easy for them to switch to other crops,” said Choi Kyu-sup, director of the Korea Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association.

While it is clear the objective of the FCTC is to reduce the use of tobacco to safeguard people’s health, tobacco growers said it should not be at the expense of their livelihood.

“We need to strike a balance. Tobacco is the world’s number one choice for relaxation and it is legal. We have recognized the harmful effects of tobacco use. But this is a matter of choice. Obviously people still choose tobacco even knowing the risks involved. No one is forcing them to use tobacco,” Quarles said.


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