Lexington, KY - The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Switzerland headquarters is a far distance from the tobacco fields of Kentucky, but the agency is casting a long shadow over those fields as it prepares to pass guidelines that could affect cigarette content and interrupt a centuries-old industry.
The organization is the “directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system … responsible for providing leadership on global health matters,” according to information found on its website. One of its many priorities has been to stop the spread of disease thought to be caused by the use of tobacco.
The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is a treaty adopted by the World Health Assembly on May 21, 2003, and “entered into force” on February 27, 2005. It has been ratified by approximately 168 countries to date. Tarik Jasarevic, convention secretariat, said in an e-mail response that a “Conference of the Parties (COP) establishes a number of working groups to elaborate guidelines and recommendations for implementation of different Articles of the WHO FCTC.”
One of these working groups, Jasarevic said, works on Articles 9 and 10: “regulation of the contents of tobacco products” and “regulation of tobacco product disclosures.” The group has been asked to submit a first set of draft guidelines to the Conference of the Parties for consideration at its fourth session.
That session is scheduled for Nov. 15-20 in Uruguay. It is the language contained in Articles 9 and 10, among others, that have producers and state officials concerned. One of those guidelines would ban ingredients other than tobacco in cigarette production. If that happens, it could mean trouble for burley tobacco producers.
During the curing process, burley becomes harsh tasting, so manufacturers add ingredients and sometimes blend different types of tobacco to make cigarettes made with burley more pleasant to smokers.
The thinking behind the WHO guideline is that nothing should be done to make the product more alluring to potential smokers.
Most of Kentucky’s congressional delegation, along with Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, have voiced their opposition to proposed cigarette regulations, fearing a global ban on such additives would, in effect, eliminate the market for Kentucky-grown burley, according to Farmer.
“We’ve made great strides to diversify Kentucky agriculture in recent years,” Farmer said. “Yet still today, thousands of Kentucky farmers rely upon burley to provide the income that feeds their children and pays their bills. If the current proposal is adopted as is, many Kentuckians could lose their farms, and many more could lose their jobs.”
Since the federal tobacco quota buyout passed Congress in 2004, the number of tobacco farms in the state has fallen from more than 40,000 to around 8,000. Still, Kentucky is the largest burley-producing state in the nation. The Kentucky office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that more than 161 million pounds were grown here in 2009.
Last year’s crop was valued at more than $274 million, but most of the burley produced in the state — 85 percent to be exact — is marked for export, so the WHO regulation becomes even more of a concern.
Roger Quarles is a tobacco farmer in Scott County and serves as the current president of the International Tobacco Growers Association, as well as president of the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association. Having been involved in the international tobacco scene, Quarles said he feels there is no scientific basis for the WHO regulation and that it is an effort by the organization to end tobacco use of any kind.
“Their objective is to eradicate tobacco. Fifty-four percent of all the cigarettes sold in the world are considered to be ‘American blend,’ which means they contain burley tobacco, regardless of where it was grown,” he said. “Immediately, if this thing comes to pass, it would be illegal to sell American-blend cigarettes that have any ingredient other than tobacco. That is what we are fearful of.”
One thing the industry has tried to point out, in the event these guidelines are passed, is the potential for an increase in the sale of illegal cigarettes.
“If people wish to find something they desire to consume, they are going to find it,” said Quarles. “This would force more people to go to a smuggled, illicit cigarette, which would deprive all these governments of tax revenue.”
While such a ban would not be enforced in the United States because this country did not ratify the treaty, Quarles said he believes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would “apparently” try to duplicate this same ban. The FDA took over tobacco regulation last year after a landmark bill passed Congress, giving the agency regulatory power over the industry.
“There is no study that we are aware of where it says that an American-blend cigarette is any more or less harmful than any other type of cigarette,” said Quarles.
Aside from the lack of evidence to substantiate a ban, the task of enforcing such a regulation is another matter.
“These are guidelines, and that’s all they are. It doesn’t mean that this would carry the force of law. It would be up to individual countries to decide what degree of enforcement to put into this,” Quarles added.
He also said that there is some question as to whether a ban would even be legal, since it would be a “Technical Barrier to Trade,” or TBT.
The Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade tries to ensure that regulations, standards, testing and certification procedures do not create unnecessary obstacles, according to the World Trade Organization. In essence, there has to be a logical scientific reason for an action; otherwise existing trade treaties may be broken.
With so many questions yet to be answered, the likelihood that farmers will feel the effects of a ban, should it be passed, is small for now, but it is one more obstacle to consider as they prepare to harvest the 2010 crop.
By Tim Thornberry