When the imperialist British came to this country, indigo was one of the key plants they made our farmers grow. In the modern day, they are made to grow tobacco under the patronisation of foreign tobacco companies.
Bangladesh is the twelfth largest producer of tobacco in the world. Every year in Bangladesh, Tobacco kills more than 95,000 people and is accountable for 24 percent male deaths and 12 percent female deaths.
It also remains solely responsible for approximately 1.2 million people who have been suffering from different diseases. Tobacco is estimated to have an economic cost of USD863 million in the country.
Although Tobacco research and development activities were undertaken by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), they were abandoned in 1995. The production of tobacco was mainly driven by large multinationals like the British American Tobacco Corporation via contract growers.
The tobacco industry publicly makes the claim that tobacco cultivation generates gainful employment and income for tobacco farmers, while evidence suggests otherwise.
The cultivation of tobacco is extremely labour intensive. Tobacco farmers must work on a stretch for 70 hours during the treatment process. There is also widespread use of unpaid family labour.
A considerable proportion of women and children are involved in tobacco production and the processing of tobacco leaf, which is against the law and constitutes exploitation of women and children. The International Convention on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour 1999 strictly prohibits such kind of child labour.
Moreover, child labour leads to a loss of human resources as children are not allowed to go to school during work. Tobacco production also presents a major risk to children's health. Tobacco farmers are at high risk for diseases such as bronchial asthma, lung cancer, green tobacco sickness (GTS), nausea and swelling, acute nicotine poisoning, breathing disturbances, musculoskeletal injuries, mental illness and other health problems.
Tobacco production, along with the generation of health hazards for tobacco farmers, has a major negative impact on the local ecosystem, including deforestation resulting from the need for wood to cure tobacco leaves, soil fertility depletion, groundwater contamination, surface water pollution and adverse effects on surrounding trees and animals, i.e. the biodiversity of the surrounding trees and animals. Tobacco plants sap nutrients from the soil at a higher rate than most other plants.
In contrast to corn, for instance, tobacco absorbs two and a half times more nitrogen, seven times more phosphorus and eight times more potassium. Tobacco farming not only contributes to the depletion of cultivable land for food crops but also, among other health risks and diseases, induces severe environmental contamination.
Tobacco manufacturers further argue that the government of Bangladesh collects a large amount of tax revenue from their goods at various levels of production. Accordingly, they claim that a rise in the tax rate would decrease the sale of goods, which, in essence, would cost the government critical tax revenues from the industry, which would also trigger an increase in smuggling on a colossal scale.
Tax income from tobacco farmers is collected by the government in several ways. Some of these include value-added tax, customs duty, supplemental taxes and duties on tobacco products manufactured locally, as well as on imported tobacco products.
The tobacco industry persuades tobacco farmers to continue and increase the production of tobacco by providing different benefits, including loan and purchasing back guarantee. Farmers, on the one hand, are caught up in a vicious debt trap and, on the other hand, finding tobacco farming to be lucrative without taking into account the private costs, including unpaid family work, the health threats incurred by the handling of tobacco and the social costs, including the environmental damage to the earth, water and forest resources levied by the production of tobacco.
The primary national legislation regarding tobacco is The Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act, 2005, as amended by the Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) (Amendment) Act, 2013. This act bans smoking in certain public places and offices, but in some places, such as restaurants and hotels, smoking facilities are allowed. With some smoking areas authorized in these places, many public areas (for example children's parks, fairs and bus stops) are also smoke-free.
Previously, the cigarette packets required health alerts, but they were very small, weak and incomprehensible to almost half of the illiterate population in this country. Now, Graphic Health Notices covering at least 50 percent of the front and back of smoking and smokeless cigarette packaging in the Bengali text are also required and all tobacco advertisement, promotion and sponsorship are prevented.
Article 18 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) calls for the protection of the environment and the welfare of people engaged in the production of tobacco, and Article 17 stresses alternative livelihoods for tobacco growers and workers.
In 2004, Bangladesh ratified this convention and is also committed to taking action in this respect. The adverse effects of the use of tobacco on public health and the economic expense of tobacco-related diseases are well documented in Bangladeshi legislations.
Government initiatives and attempts by NGOs to eliminate smoking commenced near the end of the 1980s. There have been several attempts to educate and inform the public about the use of tobacco.
In 1997, national radio and TV stations stopped broadcasting cigarette commercials. Tobacco cultivation control is a matter of urgency to solve the food crisis and save human health and the environment. But as the Law has not been thoroughly regulated by the agriculture or industry, it was not very effective with the enactment of Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act, 2005 by the Bangladesh Government's Ministry of Health.
The Legislation is enacted to regulate the use, purchasing, sales and marketing of smoking and production of tobacco.
This legislation also, however, offers options in Article 12 for loans to be provided to the cultivation of food crops. This provision states that to discourage tobacco farmers from producing tobacco products and to encourage them to produce alternative cash crops the Government shall provide loan on simple terms and the facility shall continue for the next five years from the coming into force of this Act.
There are several significant factors associated with farmers in Bangladesh who choose to grow tobacco, which is important information for understanding how the state and other stakeholders can help farmers in making the transition.
For example, it would be a logical first step to ensure that there would be more market facilities in order to sell non-tobacco products that are not harmful to health or the environment.
Similarly, initiatives to improve access to credit for small-scale farmers would be another obvious part of a possible solution. Although farmers' ages obviously cannot be changed, educational programmes for long-term farmers are perhaps a viable scheme.
Regardless of what type of program governments choose to undertake, all efforts must include farmers, for example, through their associations, to make certain that the initiative matches their needs and is eminently executable. These efforts cannot realistically include the tobacco industry, which has a strong vested interest in a status quo that exploits farmers.
The author is a Research Intern at the Bangladesh Forum for Legal and Humanitarian Affairs (BFLHA).
Bangladesh Forum for Legal & Humanitarian Affairs (BFLHA) is a non-profit organisation that works in the field of social justice by promoting human rights, providing pro bono preliminary legal aid, fighting for rule of law, conducting extensive legal research and organizing humanitarian campaigns.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.