By Abigail Lee
BANGKOK, Mar 16 (IPS Asia-Pacific) – Since the age of five, Avelino Dacanay has known only one means of livelihood – tobacco farming. But today, at age 53, he has turned to farming white corn and says he finds it a more sustainable choice of crop to cultivate.
“I am happy (that) I can finally be out of tobacco farming after all the problems it has caused me and my family,” says Dacanay, who spoke at a Mar. 14 press conference here arranged by the anti-tobacco advocacy group South-east Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA).
He says his change of heart came with the realisation that he and his family’s income and quality of life had not improved much over the decades, and that cultivating tobacco had also taken a toll on their health.
“It is true (that) farmers can earn a lot from tobacco, (but) the manufacturers usually come back to us with low prices,” explained Dacanay, who comes from the tobacco-growing province of La Union in northern Philippines. “It only provides my family a minimal income after subtracting all the expenses on labour wages and insecticides.”
But the Philippines’ National Tobacco Administration says on its website: “Tobacco is the only cash crop which contributes an enormous sum in the family income of the farmers, particularly those in North.”
According to statistics from SEATCA, tobacco farming can bring a farmer between 1,725 to 2,645 US dollars per hectare. But they need to sell to brokers who aim to buy tobacco leaves at lower prices in order to sell them at a profit to the large tobacco companies, the anti-tobacco group says.
“We have no control over our pay (as) it is decided by the middlemen. It’s a contract (with them),” Dacanay explained.
SEATCA’s press conference was aimed at countering the oft-cited arguments by tobacco manufacturers that anti-smoking campaigns, including raising taxes on tobacco products, hurt the livelihood of poor farmers who grow tobacco especially in developing countries.
At the same press conference, Mary Assunta, SEATCA senior policy advisor, said that tobacco industry groups like the the Portugal-based International Tobacco Growers’ Association (ITGA) paints tobacco farming as a profitable way of make a living and stokes opposition by farmers to effective tobacco control measures. “Thousands of farmers from all over the world have fallen into the trap of the ITGA who spin the truth of tobacco farming in order to lure farmers into their lucrative businesses,” she argued.
In its briefing paper, SEATCA cited public statements made by the ITGA – which describes itself as a non-profit group that pushes the interests of tobacco farmers and the long-term security of tobacco markets – that “these (tobacco control) measures will have a huge devastating effect on the lives of millions of growers” and that these would put “our families and businesses under threat”.
But SEATCA argues in a statement that tobacco farming is an “insignificant contributor to total employment and agriculture among ASEAN countries”. It claims that tobacco hectarage accounts for an average of just 0.2 percent of total agricultural land, citing figures from the Tobacco Atlas.
Comparing planting white corn to planting tobacco, Dacanay said that white corn is locally consumed and can also be planted on any type of soil, whereas much of Philippine tobacco is exported and its cultivation is very dependent on costly fertilisers. White corn cultivation also involves fewer labourers and no machinery at all, he added.
White corn is harvested every 72 days, compared to tobacco – which, depending on the demand of the industry, which usually takes up to half a year to harvest. “It’s slow money to harvest tobacco crops,” Dacanay pointed out.
Groups like SEATCA have been calling for greater action to curb the growing number of smokers in South-east Asia. In 2011, World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics showed that the number of adult smokers reached a 127.17 million– which makes up 29.5 percent of adults in the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In countries like Indonesia, there are some 65 million smokers, and deaths related to tobacco diseases are significantly higher than that in other ASEAN nations, WHO data show. According to the same data, Indonesia has an average of 190,260 deaths per year from tobacco-related illnesses, a figure that is double that of the Philippines’ 87,100 deaths per year. The Philippines is known to have among the cheapest tobacco products in the world.
Even in Thailand, which banned smoking in public places in 2009 and hiked taxes on tobacco products in 2011, the number of smokers has increased from 10.9 to 11.5 million people in a country of 69.5 million people, according to World Bank Data.
From 2004 to 2009, Thailand had seen a steady increase in tobacco-related deaths from 45,136 to 50,710 cases, according to WHO.
On Mar. 8, the Thai health ministry approved regulations that would require that graphic health warnings take up 85 percent of the space of cigarette packs sold in Thailand. This would mark an increase from the 55 percent graphic health warnings currently in use in Thailand.
When implemented late in 2013, this would mean that the South-east Asian country has the largest health warnings on cigarette packs in the world, anti-tobacco advocates say.
This move came under fire from the Thai Tobacco Trade Association, which in a letter to the health ministry said: “The announcement shocked the retailers. There weren’t any warnings or call for discussion. The well-being of about 480,000 Thai retailers is more important than just making a world record.”
“When countries strengthen their policies, there is no doubt the tobacco industry will challenge the legislation especially measures that reduce tobacco consumption. They have tried to delay tobacco control laws that are stringent, fight tobacco tax increases, and dilute bans on tobacco advertising sponsorship and promotions time and again,” said SEATCA director Bungon Ritthiphakdee.
Dacanay suggests that governments in South-east Asia help tobacco farmers adjust to other crops and means of livelihood by soil testing for what would be more profitable and sustainable crops, and by giving easier access to production loans to encourage existing tobacco farmers to try growing other crops.
Dr Prakit Vathesatogkit, secretary general of the International Network of Health Promotion Foundations (INHPF), credited Thailand’s tax policy on tobacco products – which, according to WHO, is 85 percent – for the overall decrease in the number of deaths caused by smoking in the decade, since 1991.
“Tobacco control is not only good for health, but also for the economy and its growth,” he said.