TI’s initiatives gloss over realities

4 December 2017:

With the UN Global Compact de-listing tobacco companies and the bad publicity on the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) collaboration with the tobacco industry (TI), the TI’s public relations has gone into overdrive to do damage control. Glowing reports of the industry’s programmes on improved tobacco growing are emerging thick and fast.

In November, Philip Morris International (PMI) has been actively tweeting messages on its efforts to improve tobacco growing conditions, such as:

  • PMI: “Our Agricultural Labor Practices help to eliminate labor abuse, achieving safe and fair conditions on farms where 2.2M people live & work

SEATCA: What about all the other millions of growers who are trapped in poverty?

  • PMI: “Improving labor conditions in agriculture is tough. 2,800+ field staff help achieve better conditions on farms http://insid.pm/6010D6I3w

SEATCA: So while difficult labour conditions persist, PMI continues to pay low prices for the leaves and remains World No. 1 tobacco company?

  • PMI: “We provide after-school programs in Indonesia & help women in tobacco farming families build entrepreneurship skills http://insid.pm/6016D6Yjj

SEATCA: Child labour in tobacco growing remains a big problem in Indonesia. Growers continue to remain poor.

Tobacco growers are vulnerable to green tobacco sickness, exposure to hazardous pesticide, low prices for their leaves and caught in a cycle of debt and poverty.  

British American Tobacco (BAT) in its recent report, ‘A view from the Inside’ responds to some of these issues. As in the past, BAT’s response is far from satisfactory as it skirts around some perennial  problems facing tobacco growing.

BAT’s sustainable agriculture & farmer livelihood – 3BLMEDIA Reality on the ground

On sustainable agriculture and farmer livelihood:

“Our sustainable agriculture objectives are fundamental to ensuring the continued success and long-term security of our business.”

Tobacco growing is unsustainable without extensive capital support, demanding on the growers, and exhausts the soil of its nutrients.

BAT’s long-term security means it will continue selling more cigarettes.

BAT buys leaves directly from about 90,000  farmers, but about 260,000+ farmers are third-party suppliers.

“Vast majority of our suppliers have their own network of expert field technicians to provide farmers with guidance, technical assistance and capacity building …”

Vast majority of farmers are left to the guidance from expert field technicians? Who are the technicians accountable to?

Tobacco growing has far worse environmental impacts than other crops:

“Many of the issues that are associated with growing tobacco are common across agriculture and the only way to completely avoid them would be not to farm any crop, …”

BAT takes an extreme position to blur problems specific to tobacco. Other crops don’t pollute the environment with trillions of non-biodegradable cigarette butts.

See the WHO report on ‘Tobacco and its environmental impact: an overview’

Allegations about child labour and human rights issues in tobacco growing:

“I’ve learned how complex an issue this can be, with children learning agricultural techniques and skills from their parents – which the International Labour Organisation (ILO) acknowledges is a normal part of growing up on a family farm. It’s when this hinders their education, or can be harmful to their health, that it’s completely unacceptable.”

So BAT approves of child labour as long as child labourers attend school?

The tobacco industry says it is “complex”, but it still has not identified how many children are actually involved in producing leaves which supply its factories.

How will BAT’s focus on Next Generation Products (NGPs) have an impact on tobacco leaf demand and the livelihoods of farmers?

“The fact that a significant proportion of our business will remain in conventional tobacco products for many years to come, we do not anticipate any material impact on the demand for tobacco leaf for the foreseeable future.”

BAT will continue to focus its business and make bulk of its profits from regular (combustible) cigarettes. Cigarettes kill half their regular users prematurely. BAT is now doing corrective adverting on this fact in the USA, but not elsewhere in the world.

Alternate crops

“We’ve always encouraged crop diversification – it not only increases farmers’ resilience by not relying on just one crop, but also helps to enhance food security and to preserve soil health.”

BAT is singing a different tune because its front group, the International Tobacco Growers Association, has insisted there are no viable alternatives to tobacco growing.

The Conference of the Parties (COP) has provided steps for government to assist tobacco growers shift to alternate livelihoods, as required in FCTC Article 17. The tobacco industry through its front group, the ITGA, has attacked government efforts in implementing Article 17.