When you enter Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, you might be struck by the grandeur of the building, but your mind probably doesn’t jump straight to a pack of cigarettes. The building was, of course, the townhouse of William Cunninghame, one of the city’s Tobacco Lords – merchant traders who made vast fortunes in the brutal horror of the transatlantic trade in slaves and tobacco. Between 1740 and 1770 almost half of all Europe’s tobacco imports arrived at Glasgow, Port Glasgow and Greenock, and accounted for 80% of all Scottish re-exports. From the 1750s onwards the Clyde was handling a larger share of Europe’s tobacco than all other British ports combined.
It’s a tempting thought that this kind of miserable and manifest unfairness is a thing of the past. But the tobacco industry is carrying on in that proud tradition today. Across southern Africa millions of people work themselves to exhaustion for starvation wages to grow this deadly product. Vast fortunes are still being made, but the money never seems to reach the farmers. That’s why the theme of this year’s World No Tobacco Day (31 May) is “tobacco – a threat to development”.
Take Malawi. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world, and it’s no coincidence that it’s also the most tobacco dependent: 13% of the economy is directly accounted for by tobacco growing. And the land that grows tobacco doesn’t grow food crops, contributing to food insecurity and poverty in one of the poorest countries in the world – where 33% of people are undernourished.
Tobacco is often thought of as a cash crop. But it isn’t ordinary people who get rich. Farmers in Malawi often spend backbreaking hours planting and harvesting tobacco so they have, at the end of the day, just about enough money to pay the loans they took out from the tobacco companies in order to get seeds, pesticides and fertiliser.
Young children are expected to work in the fields picking tobacco leaves for curing. That cuts away at their chances to get an education and exposes them to green tobacco sickness, where the nicotine on the surface of the immature leaves lead to nausea and illness.
The tobacco they pick doesn’t stay in Malawi. The country has low levels of smoking, partly because so many people can barely afford food, let alone cigarettes. Instead, it’s exported all over the world – Malawian tobacco is considered a good filler to bulk out cigarette blends, so it’s used in all sorts of well-known brands. If you buy a pack in a shop in Glasgow, there’s a good chance it’s partly Malawian.
But with fewer packs being sold across the developed world the tobacco industry is seeking to expand its markets in poorer countries, using methods which have been banned in the UK. Studies have shown that people in low income countries are far more likely to see tobacco ad campaigns than those in richer places. And it’s children who often face the brunt of this assault – one 2011 survey found that one in ten 13-15 year olds in Uganda had been offered free cigarettes by a tobacco company representative.
In poor countries, it’s often easy for a big company to influence governments. In Uganda and Nigeria, big tobacco companies have been fighting tooth and nail against laws to introduce even the most basic protections against smoking. They are happy to hide behind growers to make their arguments, often setting up front groups and spreading shoddy information which frightens farmers into supporting their cause.
That’s a tactic we’ve become familiar with here as well. Tobacco companies recognise that their executives don’t cut the most sympathetic figures, so they often hide behind retailers and small businesspeople when it comes to lobbying against regulations. It’s a sad fact that these individuals’ concerns over their businesses are misused in the services of tobacco companies’ concerns for theirs. As a nation, we’ve seen tobacco threaten and harm the world’s poorest people before. But we’ve fought back too – the Glasgow Emancipation Society was at the forefront of calls to abolish the slave trade. We can take that example today.
It isn’t the fault of Malawian farmers that the only way they can make a living is tobacco. But if we don’t help them, the vicious circle will continue, and only Big Tobacco will benefit as lives are lost. That’s why we agree with the World Health Organisation that the UK and Scottish governments must use aid programmes to help tobacco farmers to transition to alternative crops with better financial returns. That support could save millions of lives.