Nong Khai tobacco farmers fear new law

By Chanisara Samphantha

Every year from January to March, tobacco fields line both sides of the Highway 242 as it snakes along the Mekong River westwards from the border city of Nong Khai to Tha Bo district.

For decades, tobacco has been an important industrial crop in Nong Khai province, providing the main source of income for about 1,000 local farmers. In total, they produce about 1,500 tons of tobacco on average per year, generating earnings of about 174 million baht (about US$5 million).

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In Nong Khai province about 1000 farmers depend on the income from tobacco farming.

But since last year, tobacco farmers in the province are worried about their future, as they believe a new tobacco law will ban or restrict the cultivation of the crop. The new legislation is currently awaiting presentation to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA).

“I’m afraid that they will stop me from growing tobacco. It’s my career and the income lets me pay for my children’s education,” said Ms. Bunchan (last name withheld), a 51-year-old tobacco farmer from Tha Bo district in Nong Khai province.

Farmers in the district cultivate tobacco seedlings from the end of November through December. After one month they transfer the young plants to their fields. Between February and April, farmers harvest the tobacco leaves, prepare them for consumption and sale through a curing process or sell them directly to a nearby tobacco factory.

Depending on the quality of the produce, farmers receive between 65 to 70 baht per kilogram for low quality and 95 baht per kilogram for high quality leaves when selling to a factory.

Other tobacco farmers cut and pack the leaves themselves under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance, which directly deducts a tobacco tax from farmers’ profit when they sell their product to merchants. While the price for tobacco fluctuates every year, best quality tobacco sells for about 100 baht per kilogram.

Uncertain future?

Last year, village committees in the Tha Bo district circulated a document, which many residents understood as asking farmers to agree to stop growing tobacco or downsize their areas of cultivation.

“I didn’t sign [the document] because I don’t want to stop growing it. I’m a tobacco farmer. I’m not ready to end my career,” said Ms. Bunchan, adding that her family has been growing the large-leaved plants since before she was born.

Another tobacco farmer in the district, 40-year-old Ms. Sarun (last name withheld), also expressed worries as she heard about a new tobacco law that was to be enacted but she did not know any details.

But Prakit Vathesatogkit, Executive Secretary of the Action on Smoking and Health Foundation of Thailand (ASH), an anti-smoking non-governmental organization in Bangkok, told The Isaan Record that tobacco farmers have no reason to be concerned about the new law.

The document circulated in Tha Bo district was in fact a petition asking farmers to support the new Tobacco Product Control Act, which is intended to further regulate tobacco products, said Mr. Prakit, who was involved in the formulation of the act. He stressed that tobacco farming, curing, and selling are not affected by the law.

“Tobacco farmers in many provinces put up posters opposing the law based on very distorted information,” Mr. Prakit said about farmers’ attempts to organize against the new law.

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A petition circulated in Nong Khai province asking farmers to support the new Tobacco Product Control Act, which is awaiting approval by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA).

The new tobacco law

The new Tobacco Product Control Act is an update on a previous law expanding the definition of what constitutes tobacco, said Lakkana Termsirikulchai, the director of the Tobacco Control Research and Knowledge Management Center at Mahidol University in Bangkok.

Since the previous tobacco law was passed in 1992, Thailand’s tobacco industry has grown tremendously, Ms. Lakkana explained, adding that new tobacco products like electronic cigarettes and flavored shisha tobacco have been introduced to the market.

In 2003, Thailand ratified the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the first international tobacco health treaty aimed at protecting people from the harmful effects of tobacco consumption, tobacco products, and breathing secondhand smoke. In order to comply with the FCTC, some sections of the previous law needed to be updated, Ms. Lakkana explained.

The new law also introduces additional restrictions on tobacco advertising, such as online advertising and promotional models. Moreover, it lays out strategies to prevent youth from accessing tobacco products. In addition, tobacco sales are now only permitted for consumers aged 20 and older, up from the present minimum age of 18.

The new law also bans the sale of single cigarettes and introduces a minimum package size of 20 cigarettes. Other strategies outlined in the WHO FCTC have also been implemented.

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Cut tobacco leaves drying in the sun as part of the curing process.

“We think that this draft is suitable and it will surely benefit our children. The act will protect them from tobacco addiction which could lead to other drug addictions eventually,” Ms. Lakkana said.

But the new legislation has spurred opposition. Waraporn Namat, Executive of Thai Tobacco Trade Association (TTTA), questioned the benefits of the law, and voiced concerns about potential negative impacts on the tobacco industry.

“Can this law encourage smokers to quit? What are the consequences of raising cigarette taxes?” asked Ms. Waraporn. “There will be more illegal products if they raise the tax rate. The members of TTTA disagree with this new act.”

Ms. Waraporn agreed that vendors should be regulated by the law. For example, cigarettes should not be sold to teenagers, she said.

Currently, 1,300 TTTA members haven agreed not to sell to youth, Ms. Waraporn said. For this reason, she disagreed with increasing the minimum purchasing age for tobacco products from 18 to 20 years old as stipulated in the new law. She argued that 18-year-olds are eligible to vote in national elections and should therefore be able to make decisions about their own life.

“The law is not well thought through and it is too broad,” Ms. Waraporn said. “It aims at controlling and oppressing the tobacco industry.”

Will the new law affect tobacco farmers?

On May 26, the Cabinet approved the draft of the new act. The Ministry of Public Health asked the government to submit it the NLA.

If the new act is approved and properly enforced, it is projected to reduce youth demand for tobacco products and thereby decrease the number of new smokers, possibly by more than 100,000 individuals per year, according to the ASH.

Moreover, it could decrease the risk of economic losses by saving approximately 15,800 million baht per year, the ASH estimates. This includes cost for health care services of patients with smoking-related illnesses and indirect economic costs caused by smokers’ reduced work productivity and sick-leave periods.

The projected reduction in demand should not affect the Ministry of Finance’s income from cigarette taxes, which currently amounts to around 60 billion baht per year, with 38% coming from imported cigarettes and 62% from cigarettes manufactured in Thailand.

But tobacco industry representative Ms. Waraporn warned that the new act might impact tobacco farmers’ incomes. “It’s like a river that has a source, a middle part, and a mouth—if something happens to the source, the river mouth will be affected too,” she said.

Mr. Prakit brushes off these concerns. Tobacco farmers have different options to sell tobacco, such as via the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly (TTM), through which farmers make around 1.6 billion baht per year. The export of tobacco leaves provides another alternative for tobacco farmers, he said. Thailand’s tobacco exports are currently valued at approximately 2.25 billion baht per year.

Finally, farmers can also choose to sell their produce to local tobacco traders. Therefore, farmers should not be significantly impacted by the new Act, Mr. Prakit said.

“Although there is only a small chance that tobacco farmers will be negatively affected by the new Act,” Mr. Prakit said, “the government should assign a committee to help compensate tobacco farmers if there will be less smokers in Thailand by providing support and incentives to encourage tobacco farmers to grow alternative crops.”

Chanisara Samphantha is a participant of The Isaan Journalism Network Project, which is organized by The Isaan Record to train journalists in the Northeast and increase news coverage of the region.

This article was first published in Thai on August 18, 2016.