Tobacco: the next Fairtrade frontier

21 May 2008

An ethically-sourced cigarette has been launched in the UK.

1st Nation cigarettes

1st Nation cigarettes

Two thirds of the world’s tobacco is dealt directly from farmer to company with the rest passing through a third party. A single industry giant, British American Tobacco, deals with 37,000 farmers in Africa. Tobacco is undoubtedly a hugely important industry for many people in the Global South. Take Malawi, for example, where more than 60% of the population live on less than $2 a day and where tobacco represents 70% of export earnings.

Now tobacco minnow 1st Nation have launched an ethically-sourced cigarette in the UK, home to ten million smokers. This, they argue, helps tobacco farmers in Malawi in the same way as Fairtrade coffee helps coffee growers in Latin America and elsewhere. For every tonne of tobacco purchased at market prices 1st Nation makes a voluntary donation to an independent local organisation that invests in agricultural projects. The claim is that this will “directly help their farmers to diversify into growing alternative, more profitable, crops.”

Why ‘1st Nation’?

The Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne is a territory located across the New York State-Ontario-Quebec borders on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River. Its population is around 11,000. Cigarette manufacturing has been a steady source of employment for this disadvantaged people since 1997. In 2006 they gained a license to distribute their cigarettes outside the reservation, allowing the Mohawks to manufacture for the North American and export markets.

Why ‘ethically-sourced’ and not ‘Fairtrade’?

1st Nation contacted the Fairtrade labelling organisations in Germany, Italy, the USA and our own Fairtrade Foundation to try to obtain Fairtrade status. Every one of these approaches for Fairtrade accreditation was unsuccessful and the reason given was that none of the organisations currently has standards written to cover Fairtrade tobacco production. 1st Nation state that although the Fairtrade organisations expressed a desire to help impoverished tobacco farmers, “without exception they felt that fair trade tobacco was too politically sensitive a crop for their organisation to engage with.”

But is it economically insensitive not to apply Fairtrade standards to a product that many farmers in the Global South rely upon?

1st Nation argue that the economic benefits to farmers in Malawi outweigh any political flak that might fly in the UK as a result of Fairtrade cigarettes coming onto the market: “It is not our intention to attract new smokers to the market, but to offer existing smokers of competitor brands an alternative tobacco product that provides real economic advantage to the tobacco growers and processors.”

Smoking is bad for your health. Yet so is alcohol and chocolate, and there are well-established Fairtrade wines, beers and chocolate on the market in the UK. As long as tobacco remains legal, it does seem slightly perverse to ignore those farmers who are after all only providing us with something that we want and already buy in huge quantities.

Smoking kills. But so does poverty.

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