Tobacco: Background

Tobacco workers face many trials, including widespread health concerns, debt bondage, price collusion by tobacco companies, and child labor.

During visits to more than thirty tobacco farms in Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Bolivia and Argentina in 1997-2011, Marty Otañez, assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, witnessed activities employed by the tobacco industry that obstruct tobacco control and increase economic marginalization. Many kids and adults on tobacco farms wake up and go to sleep hungry.

Tobacco does not provide a sustainable livelihood for families in many countries, as it has caused widespread health concerns, debt bondage, high input costs, high labor costs (leading to child labor), and declining profitability for individuals who grow tobacco every year. In Malawi, tobacco companies have been taking advantage of credit opportunities by selling agricultural chemicals and other inputs at above-market rates on loan. The companies, through these loan arrangements, then trap farmers into a cycle of debt.

Tobacco producers and their families suffer from nutritional deficiencies as tobacco, instead of food, occupies scarce land. Exposure to tobacco dust among family members that are forced to store tobacco leaves inside their homes contributes to extreme coughing and other negative respiratory effects.

When adults and children cut and bundle tobacco leaves they are put at a risk of absorbing pesticides and/or nicotine from the tobacco leaves through their skin. Nicotine poisoning is also called Green tobacco sickness, and can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, and fluctuations in blood pressure or heart rate. Some workers are given the task of applying pesticide chemicals with their bare hands, and this exposure to toxic agricultural chemicals intensifies the poor health of tobacco families..

In Malawi, farm owners and tobacco companies threaten tobacco workers with dismissal if they join a union, and tobacco companies are unwilling to work with unions on bargaining agreements. These threats weaken the power and voice of tobacco workers, and keep them from demanding the working conditions and prices that they need.

Tobacco companies collude over prices and downgrade (assign a lower quality to) leaf, thereby forcing farmers to accept a lower price for their leaf. With uncertain and falling leaf prices benefiting the corporate bottom-line, many farmers receive only one dollar or less for every kilogram of leaf, which doesn’t come close to covering production costs. Low prices severely limits a farmer’s ability to break free from the cycle of debt servitude so that he can achieve economic security and food sovereignty.

For more information: