It’s an awkward complication in any global narrative about fairness, equality and social responsibility, that an awful lot of people in mostly lower-income countries owe their livelihoods to growing tobacco.

While some countries – India, say, or China – might shrink from attempting to eradicate smoking because of the huge tax income tobacco brings in, others may find what seem straightforward health-based decisions have unwanted consequences for some of their more vulnerable citizens.

While smoking is now almost universally considered to be a Bad Thing, novel products not yet so deeply embedded in the social and economic fabric may seem a softer target. And perhaps worth trying to nip in the bud before they become so firmly rooted.

So you can perhaps see both sides of the argument that has broken out fiercely in Argentina between a well-meaning health ministry and rural communities in two of the country’s poorer provinces.

 

Chief cash crop

 

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    Already feeling the pinch from falling demand, tobacco-growers in Misiones in the country’s northeast and Salta in the northwest – where tobacco is the primary cash crop – have been reeling since late March, when the ministry announced without warning a total ban on trade and distribution of heated tobacco products.

    Now their representatives are taking legal steps to try to overturn a ban which the farmers argue contravenes existing tobacco laws. And which has led to the scrapping of a $300m project by Philip Morris International (PMI) affiliate Massalin Particulares to adapt its processing plant in Salta for the production of heated tobacco sticks.

    Of course, for some, the very mention of such a company will raise hackles and suspicions. A feeling, perhaps, that the unfortunate farmers are caught in a vice between the powers of Big Government and Big Tobacco.

    Australian professor Mike Daube, a well seasoned anti-tobacco campaigner, spoke in Scotland last week of “a resurgent tobacco industry seeking to promote its novel products, while doing everything it can to distract attention from the harms of cigarettes”. He would no doubt side with Argentina’s Ministry of Health on the subject of tobacco in all its forms.

    But even if you share his cynical view of the industry, it’s hard not to sympathise with those hard-pressed farmers.

    Aidan Semmens TobaccoIntelligence staff

    Photo: Jose Donizetti Dias / Wikimedia Commons

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    Aidan Semmens