BRAZIL: Providing Alternatives for Small-Scale Tobacco Farmers

Graphic picture-based health warnings on cigarette packs can help prevent youngsters from starting to smoke. - Kara Santos/IPS
Graphic picture-based health warnings on cigarette packs can help prevent youngsters from starting to smoke. - Kara Santos/IPS
  • by Fabíola Ortiz (rio de janeiro)
  • Inter Press Service

Tobacco has been grown in Brazil for 120 years, and is important for the trade balance of this South American country.

Tobacco industry statistics for 2011 show that China is the world leader in tobacco production with 2.4 million tonnes, and Brazil is the runner-up, with 867,000 tonnes.

Some 200,000 small-scale family farms, located mainly in the south and northeast of the country, produce 95 percent of Brazil's tobacco.

President Dilma Rousseff signed a tobacco control law Dec. 15 which increases taxes on tobacco, sets minimum prices for cigarettes, bans smoking in all public spaces and enclosed workplaces, and forbids advertising at points of sale.

Brazil, with its 192 million people, may thus become the most populous country to declare itself smoke-free, said the U.S.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

'Brazil is the largest country to have adopted an anti-tobacco law,' activist Patricia Sosa, in charge of Latin American programmes for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told IPS.

'Every year, exposure to secondhand smoke causes over 600,000 premature deaths, and passive smokers who are exposed to it at home or at work have a 30 percent higher risk of developing lung cancer,' she said.

The new law bans advertising on cigarette packs and only permits the display of products with health warning messages that cover at least 30 percent of the front of the packets. This regulation will come into effect Jan. 1, 2016.

Taxes on cigarettes were increased by 300 percent, which will raise the consumer price by 20 percent in 2012, and by 55 percent in three years' time.

But in the view of the Brazilian civil society organisation Aliança de Controle do Tabagismo (ACT - Alliance for the Control of Tobacco Use), the tobacco industry remains extremely lucrative.

Around 90 percent of the tobacco produced in Brazil is exported, and tobacco production in the country is fairly high, although the prevalence of smoking has declined over the last two decades, ACT deputy director Mônica Andreis told IPS.

'The tobacco industry argues that the new measures will bring economic chaos to the country. But many family farmers who depend solely on this crop to survive are exposed to difficult labour conditions, and they get sick from having direct contact with tobacco leaf chemicals,' she said.

Working on tobacco plantations creates health problems associated with intensive use of toxic agricultural chemicals, as well as green tobacco sickness (GTS), a form of nicotine poisoning caused by absorption of nicotine through the skin as a result of handling wet tobacco leaves.

'Many of the tobacco farmers have already said they would prefer to diversify or switch crops,' Andreis said.

The ministry of agricultural development announced that during 2011 it invested six million dollars in technical support and agricultural extension services for approximately 10,000 family farmers who wish to diversify away from growing tobacco.

The funds have been used principally for families in the seven tobacco-growing states: Alagoas, Sergipe, Bahia and Paraiba in the northeast, and Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Paraná in the south.

In one year's time, the government plans to increase to 50,000 the number of families receiving aid from the National Programme to Support Product Diversification in Tobacco-Growing Areas, created in 2005.

According to the authorities, this programme is part of one of the country's largest inter-ministerial initiatives, created to meet the guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which came into force in 2005 and was ratified by Brazil that same year.

The programme facilitates access by tobacco farmers to funding and technology with the aim of converting or diversifying from tobacco growing.

Sixty-five current projects to diversify away from tobacco cultivation on family farms include raising chickens or dairy cattle, fish farming, and fruit and vegetable production. Over the last six years, 14 million dollars have been spent on services for 80,000 tobacco-farming families.

According to a study published by the Association of Tobacco Growers of Southern Brazil, out of nearly 187,000 families who grow tobacco, 47,000 have no land of their own and work as sharecroppers. And 80 percent of the 140,000 farms are less than 20 hectares in size.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the first international public health treaty, has 174 states party at present and guides the implementation of public policies for combating smoking, regarded by the WHO as a non-communicable global epidemic.

Although the number of smokers in Brazil has been dropping for the past 20 years, there are still nearly 25 million people aged over 15 who smoke, Andreis said.

The typical Brazilian smoker is male and aged between 45 and 64 - this group accounts for nearly 22 percent of tobacco consumers. The majority of smokers are people living in rural areas, less educated and with the lowest family income per person, according to a survey by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) and the National Cancer Institute (INCA).

'Among people who had received less than one year of education, or none, 41 percent started smoking before they were 15 years old; and the proportion of students who had tried cigarettes in 2009 was almost 25 percent,' Andreis said.

Latin America has a distinguished record for applying the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Ten countries have already adopted tough restrictions on advertising, publicity and sponsorship by tobacco companies. Five countries have imposed taxes of 70 percent or more on the price of cigarettes, and seven have introduced compulsory health warnings that cover at least 30 percent of the packs.

Uruguay was the first country in the region to enact tough anti-tobacco laws. In the small South American country, health warnings and graphic images cover 80 percent of cigarette packets.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service