BALAOAN, LA UNION, Philippines – There are no more bills to pay, no more children to send to school, no more house to build, but Manong (Older Brother) Dominador ‘Domeng’ C. Clemente and his wife don’t even need an alarm clock to jolt them up from sleep at 5 in the morning to head to their 3-hectare tobacco farm.
The couple of 33 years no longer remembers a year in their life when their family and the generations of families before them did not harvest tobacco.
Tobacco is life, money, family, and community to them.
But it is also a fatal peril for many others.
Almost 48% of male adults and 9% of female adults in the Philippines are smokers as of 2009. That is some 17.3 million smokers who are susceptible to preventable causes of disease, disability, and premature deaths.
Smoking is a habit that dies hard.
In the town of Balaoan, the labor-intensive farming for this crop is also a means of living that is hard to shake off.
Mang Domeng’s eldest daughter is already a nurse in Taiwan. His two other children finished criminology and education courses respectively from their parents’ hard-earned tobacco money.
They tell their aging father who only understand them in the vernacular to stop growing tobacco. We no longer need it, they say. He doesn’t have to.
But Mang Domeng keeps renting a plot of land from an arendo (a local landowner) so he can be with his workers from morning till noon.
At the farm, they cut the tobacco leaves that prior to harvest serve as their canopy at noon when they eat together.
The leaf is both product and protection from sunlight for them.
The taller the plant, the better the yield. Class double A to A, as the big-time tobacco company classifiers would say. The types that can be sold at P80 per kilo.
The taller the plant, the higher also is their canopy.
At lunch, the women in their lives bring food for the tobacco farmers. Meat is served. They whisper to each other that it is cat meat, but eat and laugh like tomorrow’s never coming. Bottled soft drinks are passed on from a pail of crushed ice.
Finding refuge from the sun, the farmers squat on the narrow strip of soil in their field dividing the tobacco plants into rows. Their hands all greasy from the resin of the plants during harvest.
Mang Domeng leads about a dozen workers, tells them to gather the leaves early this time, assures everyone there will be no work in the field when the sun shines its brightest that day.
The farmer smiles with the smile of a man at his prime who sees only the good in life. All is well in his tobacco paradise.
Paradise it is for many of these tobacco farmers who prefer the simplicity of cultivating their land for their families, for others’ consumption, and for what they call the tatak (signature) of Balaoan.
In this side of the country, the mere mention of a smoking ban brings residents into reflection.
“A tobacco ban would make our hearts heavy. We paid for our children’s education through farming tobacco,” 49-year-old farmer Hilario O. Olidan said in Filipino.
“We hope they won’t ban tobacco because many will lose their jobs,” he added.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, including inside public transport vehicles and other cars.
One of the premises of Executive Order No. 26 is the belief that “public health takes precedence over any commercial or business interest.”
Duterte recognized that cigarette smoking puts a strain not only on the financial resources of individual households but on public healthcare.
The order dated May 16 points to “scientific evidence [that] has unequivocally established that tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke cause death, disease and disability, lead to devastating health, social, economic and environmental consequences.”
“… an increasing number of Filipinos become afflicted with and die each year of tobacco-related diseases such as stroke, heart disease, emphysema, various cancers and nicotine addiction, and both the public and workers in facilities where smoking is allowed are most at risk from these and other tobacco-related diseases,” the order explains.
While tobacco farmers in Balaoan fear such policy directives, experts assure the public that these measures will not cripple the tobacco farming industry.
“There is no evidence that tobacco control measures will unduly affect our tobacco farmers, to the contrary, reports from the Department of Finance demonstrate that our tobacco exportation has increased,” explained Dr. Lee P. Yarcia, health law and policy consultant.
Philippine tobacco exportation ensures a market for existing tobacco farmers.
There are 55,533 tobacco farmers in the Philippines, according to data in the years 2010 to 2011. This is 0.16% of the country’s total employment.
But tobacco growing is extremely labor-intensive. It yields relatively low income compared to input costs as well as foreseen negative externalities – i.e., costs to health and public interest that are hard to put a price on.
Houses in Balaoan have burned down because of nearby unattended multistoried fireplaces meant for cooking tobacco leaves. These structures need round-the-clock monitoring for a week after harvest.
“Both under the Sin Tax Law and the WHO (World Health Organization) Framework Convention on Tobacco, we recognize that tobacco farming is an unsustainable and unhealthy practice for our farmers, for our environment, and for the people,” the tobacco control expert added.
Tobacco cultivation is often related to cyclical poverty due to unfair loan conditions as well as diseases due to the poor handling of strong pesticides.
Still, farmers in Balaoan are wary of leaving tobacco farming.
One of the major obstacles for tobacco farmers to diversify their crops is the lack of technical knowledge when it comes to growing other crops, having been used to tobacco growing and trading in their farms.
“The Philippines has both domestic and international commitment to support tobacco farmers shift to alternative livelihood such as engaging in food crop production,” explained Yarcia.
He explained that the sin tax law “guarantees that tobacco-producing regions have earmarked funds from revenues collected from sin taxes.”
A percentage of sin taxes collected from cigarettes is meant to fund programs that would help tobacco farmers to diversify their crops.
The challenge, said Yarcia, is “to ensure implementation of the law so that our farmers will fully benefit from tobacco control measures.”
But it will take more than lip service to elevate the discussion on tobacco control among farmers on the ground.
Education and awareness on the need for effective regulation is scarce in areas like Balaoan.
In Balaoan, current alternative crops such as corn and watermelon provide lower income compared to tobacco due to the lack of a captured market the farmers can directly sell to.
Mutlinational tobacco companies enter into deals with tobacco farmers to gain exclusive purchase of their crops, providing a sure income for land lease holders like Mang Domeng and a guaranteed return for the months-long labor of his workers. These giant cigarette firms also extend pre-harvest loans meant for fertilizers and pesticides.
Statutory law also grants incentives for local governments in the form of tobacco excise taxes.
Other crops are simply not given the same attention as tobacco in both public policy and private investments.
Not only that. In a town reliant on tobacco farming, tobacco has an impact on the most important elements of human life.
Tobacco farming provides liquidity, has strong emotional resonance among families who survive and thrive through selling smoked and dried tobacco leaves to cigarette companies, and has become part of people’s daily routines.
The dignity in the work that they do is something Balaoan’s tobacco farmers take pride in.
“What else will we do? What else will we plant?” asked Mang Domeng’s wife, convinced that there is no other alternative.
But this is far from the truth, if only shifting perceptions on the ground is prioritized as part of the transition process and if only food crops are subsidized in national laws the way tobacco is.
Tobacco farming is indeed systematically entrenched.
Local governments earn from tobacco cultivation through their shares from national taxes. Most farmers also simply rent lands from landowners who are part of associations that have tobacco as their crop of choice.
“It is high time that we implement our policy commitment to pursue genuine and effective tobacco control measures, which includes supply side reduction measures,” said Yarcia. (END)
“This story was produced under the ‘Mga Nagbababang Kuwento: Reporting on Tobacco and Sin Tax Media Training and Fellowship Program’ by Probe Media Foundation with the support of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. The grant-giving bodies have no editorial control over content and information-gathering.”