Tania Voon and Andrew Mitchell have a short piece out today on Cuba’s recent request for consultations with Australia concerning plain tobacco packaging. They make the important point that the plain packaging debate is not a debate about development pitting developing countries against developed, but that this is a narrative being pushed (including through public relations firms) by tobacco multinationals with interests in developing countries. As Voon and Mitchell point out, this narrative does not have much credibility in a context where developing countries are likely to suffer the greatest burden of non-communicable disease and where a great number of developing countries are Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
For those interested in the development impacts of tobacco I recommend this fact sheet from the World Health Organization and a more detailed 2000 World Bank study. As the link to the WHO website suggests, tobacco farmers receive a very small portion of the retail price of tobacco products (one study cited in the above link suggests that farmers received 2% of retail prices compared to 49% for tobacco companies in the US in the late 1990s). Tobacco farmers, including in the countries challenging plain packaging, farm tobacco as a cash crop, often to service debt, often on small-scale plots and often without any real prospect of achieving a sustainable livelihood. For these and other reasons the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has a working group in place on economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco growing.
The real narrative here is one of exploitation in the context of a cycle of poverty. Tobacco multinationals invoke the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in debates about tobacco control while paying rock bottom prices for tobacco leaf and repatriating profits to developed countries. The livelihoods of farmers are also invoked in these debates without reference to any evidence and despite the industry’s own arguments that measures like plain packaging will not affect overall demand.