Business

India’s move away from cigarettes creates a withdrawal problem for millions of tobacco workers

SBS World News India Correspondent reports: India is taking bold steps to fight the influence of Big Tobacco, but one of the most pressing challenges remains finding alternative employment for millions of tobacco workers.

It’s just after dawn and there’s a steady flow of traffic on the road to the Hunsur tobacco market, just outside the southern Indian city of Mysore. 

Big bails of the dried brown leaves are being transported to auction on the backs of small trucks, Massey Ferguson tractors and bullock-driven carts.    

By 7am hundreds of farmers have arrived at the market. Cigarette maker ITC, part-owned by British American Tobacco – maker of international brands such as Benson and Hedges and Lucky Strike – will buy approximately half the tobacco that’s for sale.

Shivabasappa is a second-generation tobacco grower. If the buyers judge his crop of Virginia flue-cured tobacco to be first-class he’ll earn 150 rupees (about $3) a kilogram. 

“Tobacco has made me rich,” Shivabasappa told SBS. “I am making a lot of money so I will continue to farm it.”

The Karnataka farmer knows there are moves to curb his industry, but he’s proud of what he does. It’s lucrative enough to get a bank loan and attract a wife.

And that is one of the challenges for countries trying to reduce tobacco consumption – providing alternative employment for those who rely on the industry for their livelihoods.

India is the world’s third largest producer of tobacco behind China and Brazil and millions of people in all three countries are linked to the sector.

A bail from tobacco farmer Shivabasappa's crop. If the buyers judge his crop of Virginia flue-cured tobacco to be first-class he’ll earn 150 rupees per kilo.
A bail from tobacco farmer Shivabasappa's crop. If the buyers judge his crop of Virginia flue-cured tobacco to be first-class he’ll earn 150 rupees per kilo.
Lisa Upton

Earlier this year, India’s government approved a crop diversification program in 10 states.

Alternative employment for tobacco farmers was one of the key issues discussed over the past week at a World Health Organisation conference in Noida, near New Delhi.

Delegates from about 180 countries met to discuss progress on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. In force since 2005, the treaty aims to deter tobacco use that kills approximately 6 million people every year.

“I’m pleased to say, following the adoption of the agreement, governments around the world have taken decisive steps not only to reduce tobacco use, but also to stand up to the multinational tobacco companies standing in the way of global progress,” Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, wrote in the Guardian.

“The tide of tobacco use is beginning to turn. After decades of Big Tobacco targeting low and million-income countries and years of steadily increasing sales, tobacco sales show signs of dropping.”

“Where tobacco companies have tried to threaten and bully nations, governments have responded with firm measures to protect public health,” wrote Dr Chan.

The tobacco industry in India has been at war with the central government this year following a new rule stipulating that 85 per cent of cigarette packets be covered with health warnings.

A cigarette packet with the new health warnings that cover 85% of the packet.
A cigarette packet with the new health warnings that cover 85% of the packet.
Lisa Upton

And just as big tobacco fought those laws in Australia, it is challenging them in India too, with dozens of legal battles currently before the courts.

In an attempt to hold ground, India has called for backup; they want help from an international coalition of the willing.

Addressing the WHO conference, India's health minister, JP Nadda told delegates his country couldn’t do it alone.

"Along with national will and resources, we also need the strength of international collaboration to mitigate the rising burden of the health, social and economic cost of tobacco," he said.

Ahead of the conference, tobacco farmers protested outside the health ministry and the WHO regional office in New Delhi asking the government to boycott the meeting. 

Thousands of farmers also sent the government a petition asking that no “unreasonable” proposals be adopted at the conference.

In Karnataka, one of the biggest tobacco producing states in India, farmer Shivabasappa is very aware the World Health Organisation is working with governments to curb tobacco production and consumption.

"Tobacco and cigarettes don’t cause cancer,” he says. “People who don’t smoke get cancer. It comes from alcohol and other things. Why should tobacco be banned?”

It’s unclear whether he is misinformed or unwilling to slay the golden goose.