Monday, June 06, 2016

Ash to cash

Tobacco kills an estimated six million people per year.

The tobacco industry has annual revenues of nearly $500bn. The number of cigarettes manufactured and sold has risen to six trillion every year worldwide - nearly double of what it was four decades ago. Tobacco stocks outperformed the market in 2015 and have in fact done so for the past decade. The 'big six' control 80% of the global market. Electronic cigarette market is now worth $7.5bn

China is the world's largest tobacco market. One-third of all cigarettes are smoked in China. With 65 million smokers, Indonesia is also a big market - one in five children start to smoke before the age of 10. Ethiopia, which had until recently one of the lowest smoking rates globally, is succumbing to the tobacco industries. Japan Tobacco International, well known for its investment in "emerging markets" (meaning developing countries), recently bid US $500 million for 40% shares in Ethiopia's National Tobacco Enterprise (NTE), after the Ethiopian government put those shares up for bids. British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris International (PMI) also bid sickeningly huge amount of money for those shares in NTE (over US $200 million for BAT and over US $100 million for PMI). There is a terrible drought right now in Ethiopia, with millions of people at risk for famine, and NTE report on their web site that they plan to expand their tobacco farms, while these tobacco companies bid such huge sums of money to investment in addiction of Ethiopia's youth with its consequent epidemic of tobacco-related disease and death. It's a terrible public health disaster waiting to happen, and the tobacco companies involved (NTE, JTI, BAT, PMI) should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Over the past decade, Malawi has become one of the five largest tobacco producers in the world, largely due to low export tariffs, cheap labour and lack of regulations. According to the UN, more than 98 percent of this low-cost leaf is exported to the rich nations of the developed world – with most of it ultimately destined for the factories of three of the world's biggest and most profitable cigarette manufacturers, Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco. Consequently, Malawian tobacco is found in the blend of almost every best-selling cigarette brand available in Europe, Asia and the US. But few of the smokers who buy the end product know much about the conditions the tobacco they consume is produced under. Malawi is one of the least developed nations in the world (ranking 153 out of 169 countries in the Human Development Index) with around half the population living below the poverty line of $1.25 a day and one of the highest numbers of child labourers in Africa – around 1.5 million. With tobacco sales making up 70 percent of the country's income and a significant part of its industrial activity, it is sadly inevitable that many of these children (aged between five and 15) are being forced by economic necessity to work with their families in the tobacco fields, risking their health, safety, and future. There they are subjected to hazardous manual labour, physical strain, dangerous environments, and long hours; often charged with strenuous tasks such as clearing the land, building tobacco drying sheds, weeding and plucking raw tobacco. When the children cut and bundle the tobacco leaves they are put at risk of absorbing toxic quantities of nicotine through their skin. Many suffer from a disease called green tobacco sickness, or nicotine poisoning. Symptoms include severe headaches, abdominal cramps, muscle weakness, breathing difficulties, diarrhoea and vomiting, high blood pressure and fluctuations in heart rate. Some are even given the task of applying pesticides with their bare hands – chemicals when handled incorrectly can cause serious neurological problems. It also affects their development and education - children working in the fields cannot be at school - and so their involvement in the industry inevitably perpetuates a cycle of exploitation, illiteracy, lack of opportunity and poverty that will one day force them back into the fields as adults.

The cigarette manufacturers all insist that they are firmly opposed to the use of children working in their supply chain and that in Malawi they fund projects aimed at getting children out of the fields and into education. They say they are also behind programmes that raise awareness about the health risks of handling raw tobacco.
"They are masquerading around the issue," says Mathias Burton of Malawi's Economic and Legal Social Services Centre. "To ease their consciences, that's why they have this kind of stuff. To say they are fighting child labour. And when they sell their own products ... the profits that they make, what they give out in social responsibility to these organisations is nothing at all compared to what they make."

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