Session 6: Leaf trends

A lot of what was said during “Leaf trends,” the sixth breakout session of the first day of the 2017 Global Tobacco & Nicotine Forum, seemed to imply that the U.S. government and academia don’t understand the tobacco farmer and the constraints under which he works. There was something slightly odd here because, while what was said was entirely valid, those saying it seemed to be people who, if they weren’t academics, weren’t at a great remove from academia. I guess you set a thief to catch a thief.

The session was told that one of the negative impacts of such a lack of understanding was that academics might propose and politicians might enact policies in respect of tobacco products without realizing what effect those policies would have on tobacco farmers. They didn’t understand that tobacco farmers might not be able to change in a relatively short time practices that had been entrenched—perfected, if you like—over many years, even given that they could afford to make the necessary changes.

Of course, that such issues are misunderstood is perhaps a kindly interpretation of what is going on. Another way of looking at things is that these policies are thought up by people who aren’t too bothered about such matters. And this interpretation is given weight when it is considered that no academic or politician could overlook the fact that a farmer cannot change the basics—the underlying soils on which he grows his crop or the prevailing weather patterns of the region in which he farms.

The session was told that a rule proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in January would require the reduction of N-nitrosonornicotine (NNN) levels in smokeless tobacco products. The FDA was not allowed to enact legislation that directly impacted the farmer, but, according to the agency’s analysis, farmers would have to modify their practices to produce the leaf that would enable manufacturers to meet the new standards. Such changes might, for instance, apply to the curing process, but changing curing practices might cause unintended consequences. For example, making changes to the way that dark tobacco types are cured could increase the levels of some other undesirable leaf constituents markedly.

Leaf tobacco nicotine levels were also much in the spotlight because the FDA said in July that it would require the reduction of cigarette nicotine deliveries to nonaddictive levels if that were found to be technologically and practically feasible. In respect of flue-cured tobacco, the session was told that any requirement for growers to use cultural practices to lower the nicotine content of their tobacco would be likely to have cost implications.

But while growing conditions, particularly water availability, and cultural practices had a major influence on the nicotine content of the cured leaf, it was the variety of tobacco grown that had more influence on the level of nicotine than did any other production factor.

In fact, the levels of nicotine being proposed by the FDA seem to imply that the tobacco needed would be genetically modified and the subject of intellectual property rights. And this, the session was told, had implications for tobacco trade, partly because genetically modified plants were not well-accepted outside the U.S. Some countries would be able to grow low-nicotine tobacco, but only with high capital investment, which would be a disadvantage to leaf producing countries such as Malawi and Zambia. From a trade-rules point of view, it had to be asked whether such a measure was protectionist: whether it granted an advantage to national or specific import sources and, if so, whether there existed less trade-restrictive measures that could be used to achieve the same effect—the same health gains that were being ascribed by the FDA to lowering nicotine levels.

In such a situation, three tobacco producers looked like losing out the most: Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. These three countries’ shares of tobacco exports on the global stage relative to their shares of production were very high, so they were highly reliant on the export market for selling their product. At the same time, agriculture accounted for a large share of their economies, so any disruption to the global market in trade in tobacco would adversely impact them much more than would be the case with other tobacco producing countries.

A session participant asked what could be done about unhelpful regulations enacted in the U.S., and one answer was that, with regulators, it was best to go in early and hard, rather than use the tobacco industry’s usual softly-softly approach. It was pointed out that tobacco farmers could make an impact with politicians, and that that impact shouldn’t be underestimated.