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Profit through exploitation: how tobacco companies recruit farmers


A key argument against strong tobacco control policies remains the importance of tobacco to the economy, including of cultivation. While tobacco involves significant profit, that profit generally accumulates to the few while most workers live on the margins of existence. Recent research by WBB supports the suggestion that the industry knowingly recruits small farmers unlikely to make a profit, in order to keep them in a cycle of debt that forces them to continue growing tobacco and to accept low prices, so as to increase industry profits.
Visits to several tobacco-growing areas and group discussions with tobacco farmers conducted in 2009, as well as observational research.
Tobacco company agents visit farmers in low-income areas to convince them that growing tobacco is highly profitable and appropriate to that area. They offer fertilizers, seed and loans. They point to prosperous tobacco farmers, normally large farmers with direct contracts with industry. The combination of propaganda and initial support convinces many low-income farmers to grow tobacco; among marginal farmers, many fall into debt due to high input costs, need to take out loans, and inability to recover from bad years. Further, only farmers with industry contracts receive the high prices that the industry uses to entice new growers.
The tobacco industry uses a range of techniques to convince farmers to grow tobacco, quite possibly with the aim of trapping them into a permanent debt and semi-bondage cycle by which they are forced to continue despite lack of profitability.