Farmers in the Philippines ask gov’t to defend tobacco livelihood at WHO conference


Tobacco farmers in the Philippines, encouraged by a government roadmap to expand production and the rise of less harmful alternatives to cigarettes, urged officials to champion their livelihood at the upcoming World Health Organization’s conference on global tobacco control.

Delegates from around the world are meeting in Panama on Feb. 5 to 10, 2024 for the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The global treaty plays a key role in shaping global tobacco policies, but farmer groups are concerned about its potential impact on their livelihood.

“Our lives are deeply intertwined with tobacco farming,” said Leonardo Montemayor, a former agriculture secretary and board chairman of the Federation of Free Farmers.

“It is a way of life and our means of survival amid harsh economic headwinds. With the Department of Agriculture roadmap affirming its long-term support for tobacco farming, we hope that the Philippine government will take that commitment to heart when championing our industry in this upcoming COP,” said Montemayor.

Saturnino Distor, president of the Philippine Tobacco Growers Association, said the Philippine delegation can effectively advocate for farmers by aligning with the Department of Agriculture roadmap, the Sustainable Tobacco Enhancement Program (STEP).

STEP is a strategic initiative towards boosting indigenous tobacco cultivation particularly in Mindanao.

Distor said his group sees a better future for tobacco farming in the Philippines with STEP especially with the regulation of safer alternatives to cigarettes like vapes and e-cigarettes. “Studies and science show these are better than cigarettes. That’s where the industry is headed, so we have hope that tobacco farming will continue,” he said.

The WHO FCTC, an international treaty with representatives from signatory nations, faced criticism from public health experts for potentially promoting restrictive policies against novel tobacco products, despite harm reduction being a key principle of tobacco control. After the conference was canceled in November 2023, representatives will meet in Panama on February 5 to 10 to hold its 10th biennial meeting and assess the progress of the treaty’s implementation.

 The agenda at COP 10 is expected to encompass significant issues affecting tobacco regulations and global public health, with particular focus on addressing “novel and emerging tobacco and nicotine products.”

“Tobacco farming sustains millions of farmers and their families, as well as workers in the industry,” Distor said. “Switching crops requires significant investment in new infrastructure. If the future of alternative products is uncertain, what about the future of farmers? We appeal for compassionate and humane policies.”

Aiming to uplift the tobacco sector and ensure the longevity of the national tobacco industry, the DA’s National Tobacco Administration recently launched STEP.

Agriculture Undersecretary Deogracias Victor Savellano said during the launch of STEP the tobacco industry can significantly support local economies and sustain farmers’ livelihood. He also noted the export potential of indigenous tobacco to boost foreign exchange reserves.

Savellano highlighted the export potential of indigenous tobacco with its capacity to bolster the country’s foreign exchange reserves.

Data from the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) show that the tobacco sector employs over 2.1 million Filipinos and contributes significantly to government income, with P160 billion collected in excise taxes in 2022.


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