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Ministry reports 43% drop in tobacco cultivation

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor - features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, August 21, 2014    

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GOVERNMENT appears to be winning the war against tobacco cultivation, with the Ministry of Agriculture reporting a decline in the amount of land currently under production.

Chief technical director in the ministry Dermon Spence told the Jamaica Observer that preliminary figures for 2014 show a 43 per cent decrease in tobacco cultivation when compared to 2011, the most recent year, prior to 2014, for which a survey was done.

"The last survey we did was in 2011 and it showed that the actual number of farmed acres was 311. The preliminary data for 2014 showed a decrease to 175. The actual number of farmers also declined, from 573 in 2011 to 488 for far this year," he said.

While taking some credit for the decline in production, the ministry acknowledged that historically, Hurricane Gilbert and the relocation of tobacco companies to Trinidad and the subsequent loss of cultivation contracts made significant dents in the amount of tobacco planted here over the years.

That notwithstanding, the figures are a good sign for both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health, which have been trying to steer tobacco farmers towards alternative crops, as per Article 17 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), to which Jamaica is party.

The alternative crops, according to Spence, include Irish potatoes, onions and sweet potatoes, for which the Government provides guaranteed markets through import substitution incentives and its agro parks.

Asked how viable tobacco cultivation was when compared to the alternative livelihood crops, Spence said only that it was "very viable", pointing out that economic data has not yet been captured in the survey currently being undertaken.

According to the 2011 research, a total of 496,800 pounds of tobacco was reaped for that year, mainly from St Elizabeth and St Ann, the major producers. The crop can fetch as much as $1,000 per lb.

It was under the FCTC that Minister of Health Dr Fenton Ferguson implemented a ban on smoking in public spaces last July, but while the binding international agreement mandates parties to ensure protection from exposure to tobacco smoke, it does not force them to outlaw cultivation of the crop.

Addressing the apparent contradiction, Ferguson told the Observer Tuesday that he recognised that tobacco was a high-priced crop which provides economically for a number of people. On the other hand, however, he said he is concerned about the health impact on tobacco planters since they are vulnerable to diseases from the crop itself.

"Although there might be a contradiction relative to how it is seen, my position is firm relative to that if it were my call in relation to recognising that tobacco growing is a high-priced crop; so I'm very sensitive to persons involved in it but also have to look at impact on tobacco planters," Ferguson said.

"For me, as the minister of health of Jamaica, and knowing the danger of tobacco and tobacco smoke, the discussion that I have initiated with the Ministry of Agriculture is one which says, as we go forward, while we are not banning tobacco cultivation, our aim and our objective should be to look at alternative crops in this regard, and I continue to pursue that path because of the view that there is no amount of tobacco that is good for you," he added.

Strengthening his point, the minister repeated statistics related to tobacco-related illnesses.

"If you look at the evidence before us as to what tobacco smoking is doing, in the first instance you're talking about six million persons dying globally, 600,000 of that from passive smoking; you're talking about every six seconds someone dies across the globe from tobacco smoke. Locally, at the National Chest Hospital, 70 per cent of all the lung cancer cases and deaths are from tobacco-related illnesses. Of all the lung cancer cases, 90 per cent of those persons are chronic and that sets the tone as to why a ban on tobacco smoking was [implemented] in public spaces; not a ban on tobacco, period," the minister said.

Spence and Ferguson participated in Tuesday's stakeholders meeting which is part of a week-long needs assessment jointly hosted by the health ministry and the WHO.

The meeting was held at Terra Nova All-Suites Hotel.

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