10.15 Ethical farming issues

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is the first treaty negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization. At its third session (Durban, South Africa, 17–22 November 2008), the Conference of the Parties to the WHO FCTC decided to establish a working group on economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco growing in relation to Articles 17 and 18.1 At the fourth session of the Conference of the Parties in Uruguay, the working group presented a report that included recommendations for policy options. These policy options include1:

  • promotion of opportunities for economically sustainable livelihoods and development of markets
  • developing opportunities to counter seasonal trade in alternative crops
  • reducing tobacco production and/or promotion
  • assistance and cooperation in capacity building for economically sustainable alternative livelihoods
  • establishing an international information exchange system.

The International Labour Organizationi addressed the fourth session of the Conference of the Parties as an observer and highlighted that viable economic alternatives needed to be developed for many tobacco-dependent communities where members' livelihoods would be seriously affected as a consequence of the implementation of the WHO FCTC. The International Labour Organization called on the Conference of the Parties to adopt a holistic approach when considering employment alternative policies for those to be affected, and reiterated its willingness to continue collaborating with the WHO FCTC by sharing its experience and expertise in labour market-related issues.2

A tobacco control advocate with direct experience observing tobacco farmers in Malawi has noted that, 'tobacco industry activities to promote farmer welfare and sustainable agriculture do have some direct impact on farmers' livelihoods, such as an increase in the number of children who attend school and improved access to clean water. But at what cost? The industry's activities are really more about promoting an image of corporate responsibility to deflect public attention from tobacco-related child labour, deforestation, pesticide poisoning and soil depletion—in Malawi and other countries'.3

10.15.1 Tobacco farming and child labour

According to the International Labour Organization, in many countries child labour is mainly an agricultural issue. Globally, 60% of all child labourers between the ages of five and 17 years work in agriculture, which includes tobacco farming. This means more than 129 million girls and boys are affected worldwide. The majority (67.5%) of child labourers are unpaid family members. In agriculture this percentage is even higher, and is combined with early entry into forced work, between five and seven years of age.4

Child labour is common in many regions in which tobacco is grown, although the overall number of children involved is not known. Reports of the plight of child workers in tobacco plantations are available from commentators in Uganda, Zambia and Kenya and Malawi. These accounts describe the long hours and labour intensity of tobacco farming, and the economic necessity for children to work.5,6,7,8 Apart from denying children access to education, work in the tobacco fields may also be hazardous, exposing children to pesticides and other chemicals, and to toxicity due to nicotine in the leaf ('green tobacco sickness'—see also Chapter 3, Section 20).

Poverty is a major impetus behind child labour, but not the only one: the International Labour Organization also identifies other important influences including social inequality, paucity of educational opportunities and options for decent adult employment, strongly agrarian economies, and traditional and cultural norms. Unscrupulous employers may play a part, and external events such as natural disasters, epidemics (e.g. HIV/AIDS) and armed conflict also push children into the role of breadwinner.9

In 2002 the International Tobacco Growers' Associationii established the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Foundationiii with a membership comprising workers' unions, tobacco manufacturers and the International Tobacco Growers' Association itself, with the aim of assessing the extent of child labour in tobacco growing, supporting projects to combat child labour, and sharing best practice.10 The International Labour Organization acts an advisor to the foundation. The Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Foundation's 2010 Annual Report details activities in several countries, including Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Kyrgyzstan.11 Unsurprisingly the tobacco industry states its abhorrence of child labour, and each of the companies that operates in Australia outlines its policies on its website.12-14 All three companies are also members of and provide financial support to the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Foundation.

The effectiveness of these policies and programs remains a matter for debate. Research by the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education into the background and modus operandi of the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Foundation provided evidence/made the case that the primary concern for the tobacco companies involved was to enhance their corporate image, without initiating any real change that might undermine the financial benefits presented by child labour.15 The authors of this study comment that the costs of banning child labour and introducing decent working conditions and remuneration for adult tobacco workers in Malawi would be around US$10 million a year, a sum easily affordable given the enormous revenues of the tobacco companies.15

10.15.2 Tobacco farming and 'fair trade'

'Fair trade' describes commercial transactions in which farmers and labourers who produce a commodity are paid a fair price, allowing for decent wages, living conditions and community sustainability.iv Fair trade is most often associated with tea, coffee, cotton and cocoa grown in the developing world and sold to more wealthy countries. As noted in Section 10.8.1, most tobacco is sourced from the developing world where farming conditions are often harsh. Acknowledging this, the concept of fair trade in tobacco has been launched with 1st-Nation cigarettes, a brand produced by a small company lead by and employing Mohawk Natives on the Akwesasne Reservation close to the border of New York and Ontario, using tobacco sourced from selected independent tobacco farmers in Malawi. At the time of writing, these cigarettes could only be purchased in the UK.16

While the good intentions of the individuals involved are not in doubt, the concept of a 'fair trade' cigarette has raised eyebrows. If the touchstone of fair trade products is ethical trading practices, what are the implications if the product itself is inherently dangerous when used as the manufacturer intended?17 Ironically, the very people which 1st-Nation wishes to support—poor tobacco farmers in the developing world and First Nation peoples of North America—are especially affected by tobacco-caused death and disease.v To date, 1st-Nation has not been accredited by any international fair trade organisation, since none of these organisations has endorsed standards that cover tobacco production.16



i The International Labour Organization is the global United Nations agency responsible for promoting opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. http://www.ilo.org/global/lang--en/index.htm

ii For further discussion about the International Tobacco Growers' Association, refer to Section 10.18.5

iii Webpage of the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Foundation: http://www.eclt.org/

iv See the international website for Fairtrade for further information: http://www.fairtrade.net/about_fairtrade.html

v Like some other Indigenous peoples, First Nation people have a higher prevalence of smoking than the rest of their country's population and hence bear greater health consequences (see Chapter 8, Section 3.4). The burden of death and disease due to smoking is shifting to the developing world, where prevalence of smoking has not declined and in some regions continues to increase (see Chapter 3, Section 36).

Recent news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click here  (Last updated August 2017)     



1. WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Conference of the Parties. Economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco growing (in relation to Articles 17 and 18 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control) Progress report of the working group. Provisional agenda item 5.5 (FCTC/COP/4/9 for Uruguay 15-22 November 2010) 15 August, Geneva: World Health Organization, 2010. Available from: http://apps.who.int/gb/fctc/PDF/cop4/FCTC_COP4_9-en.pdf

2. International Labour Organization. Statement to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Conference of the Parties Punta del Este - Uruguay, 15-20 November 2010. Geneva: ILO, 2010, [viewed 13 August 2011]. Available from: http://www.ilo.org/public/english/dialogue/sector/papers/food/statement.pdf

3. Otanez M. Views on trying to change the tobacco industry: health justice and marginalization of tobacco companies. Tobacco Control 2009;18(5):339–40. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/18/5.toc

4. International Labour Organization. Child labour in agriculture. Geneva: ILO, 2011, [viewed 13 August 2011]. Available from: http://www.ilo.org/ipec/areas/Agriculture/lang--en/index.htm

5. Muwanga-Bayego H. Tobacco growing in Uganda: the environment and women pay the price. Tobacco Control 1994;3(3):255-6. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/reprint/3/3/255

6. Kweyuh PHM. Tobacco expansive in Kenya: the socio-ecological losses. Tobacco Control 1994;3(3):248-51. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/reprint/3/3/248.pdf

7. Mwanamukando C. 6,000 children working on tobacco farms-Choma Da. The Post, (Lusaka, Zambia) 2006:9 May. Available from: http://www.tobacco.org/news/223640.html

8. Semu-Banda P. Playing with children's lives: Big Tobacco in Malawi, 25 Feb. San Francisco: CorpWatch, 2008, [viewed 20 May 2008]. Available from: http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=14947

9. International Labour Organization. About child labour. Geneva: ILO, 2011, [viewed 13 August 2011]. Available from: http://www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/lang--en/index.htm

10. International Tobacco Growers' Association. Child labour / ITGA on child labour. Castelo Branco, Portugal: ITGA, 2008, [viewed 7 May 2008]. Available from: http://www.tobaccoleaf.org/social_responsibility/index.asp?op=3

11. Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Foundation. Foundation annual report 2010. Eliminating child labour in tobacco growing. Geneva: ECLT 2011, [viewed 14 August 2011]. Available from: http://www.eclt.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/ECLTAnnualReport20101-11-final2_lores.pdf

12. Philip Morris International. Child labor. New York: Philip Morris International, 2011, [viewed 14 August 2011]. Available from: http://www.pmi.com/eng/about_us/how_we_operate/pages/child_labor.aspx

13. British American Tobacco. Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation. London: British American Tobacco, 2011, [viewed 13 August 2011]. Available from: http://www.bat.com/group/sites/uk__3mnfen.nsf/vwPagesWebLive/DO52AQDT?opendocument&SKN=1

14. Imperial Tobacco Group. Finding solutions to child labour. Bristol, UK: Imperial Tobacco Group, 2011, [viewed 14 August 2011]. Available from: http://www.imperial-tobacco.com/index.asp?page=390

15. Otanez MG, Muggli ME, Hurt RD and Glantz SA. Eliminating child labour in Malawi: a British American Tobacco corporate responsibility project to sidestep tobacco labour exploitation. Tobacco Control 2006;15(3):224-30. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/reprint/15/3/224

16. Am Trading. Corporate website. Akwesasne, New York: Amtrading, 2008, [viewed 19 May 2008]. Available from: http://www.amtrading.us/main.html

17. Benjamin A. Ethical smoke screen. London: Ethical Living Blog, guardian.co.uk, 2007, [viewed 19 May 2008]. Available from: http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/ethicalliving/2007/11/a_brand_of_cigarettes_that.html

      Previous Chapter Next Chapter