Tobacco farmers around the world will turn their attention to Seoul this week when officials representing more than 170 governments meet to decide their future.
The occasion is the World Health Organization's biennial gathering to amend its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This will be the fifth such session since the FCTC went into force in 2005.
Technically known as the fifth Conference of the Parties (CoP5), the week-long meeting at COEX in Gangnam will focus on controversial proposals that attempt to artificially reduce, and eventually phase out the crop through absurd regulations that will have no impact on smoking rates in the world. Although their livelihoods are at stake, not one of the 30 million people who are dependent on tobacco farming worldwide has been invited to attend COP5. Among those being affected will be 25,000 Koreans who are dependent with tobacco farming.
On the table are illogical measures such as regulating the seasons tobacco can be grown and limiting the land on which it can be grown. These ideas are so radical that even tobacco control advocates are calling them "simply impractical."
The FCTC is also calling on governments to outlaw financial support to tobacco growers, banning technical assistance and contracts between growers and buyers, dismantling the bodies linking growers to governments, and banning minimum prices. And although the recommendations contain some guidance on how to identify and promote economically viable alternatives for tobacco farmers, we are a very long way from being able to provide adequate solutions for farmers in every corner of the world whose livelihoods would be affected by these measures.
If passed, these recommendations will become "guidelines" that the governments that have ratified the FCTC, including Korea's, will be pressured to implement.
Putting aside the absurdity of their policies, these proposals represent an unnerving mission creep from the FCTC's original goal of promoting alternative crop strategies so tobacco growers could adapt to an anticipated reduction in demand for tobacco and of ensuring fair and safe working conditions and environmental sustainability where tobacco farming continues. It now appears that the ideologues who are driving the agenda at these meetings are shifting their strategy away from combating the harm from smoking and toward destroying the livelihoods of millions of farmers with policies that have nothing to do with improving public health.
The International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA) and its members have stood together in supporting the original goals of the FCTC related to production. However, we now stand together in opposing this shift away from what was a laudable core mission to one that stands to destroy the lives of many growers.
Although we are not invited to the meeting this week, our combined efforts have given us a legitimate voice, which we were previously denied, in the debate in many of our home countries where governments have stood with us to oppose these proposals. Today we are asking the voting representatives of more than 170 countries to join them.
The Conference about to commence in Seoul is the moment of truth. This is the moment that we will discover whether or not the voices of more than 30 million farmers, and the many leaders supporting us, will be acknowledged, or whether we will be ignored. This is the time we will discover whether the FCTC will remain focused on its original mission of addressing tobacco harm, or if it will be driven by ideologues trying to put their hand on the lever of the marketplace at the expense of millions of people who work hard every day to support their families.
As farmers, we have the right to choose what we grow. We should be free to grow what we know provides a decent standard of living for our families. Robbing us of this right not only threatens our standard of living and that of our families, it threatens to slash the jobs of millions of farmers and laborers from communities that are already on the brink and a global economy that's already in dire straits.
We growers are fully aware that the crop on which our livelihoods depend is controversial. But delegates at the CoP5 cannot gloss over this simple truth: tobacco growing is entirely legal, demand has been and will continue to rise, it keeps more than 30 million farmers and their dependents actively employed, and it plays a critical role in stabilizing many economies worldwide.
Any proposals to throw such a large community out of work for whatever cause needs to be justified in a way that the global community can accept and in its implementation requires careful consideration from all angles, legal and moral, as well as practical and economic. These proposals have not received that level of open scrutiny.
It cannot be left to a handful of people running a fantasy revolution.
Antonio Abrunhosa, a Portuguese tobacco farmer, is CEO of the International Tobacco Growers' Association.