Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Newsflash: Colombia Will Not Fumigate Tobacco!

Tobacco plants wait for harvest
 - and for erradication planes?
Colombia has rejected a World Health Organization plan to limit tobacco farmland in order to reduce tobacco consumption, El Tiempo reports.

Fighting tobacco use is of course fundamental for protecting public health. I recently read about a study which found that, after smoking was prohibited in the workplace, heart attacks dropped 33%! Can you imagine a greater benefit for public health, particularly when second-hand smoke seriously damages the health of non-smokers.

But trying to limit tobacco farming suggests troubling parallels to another less-than-successful anti-drug campaign: the one against coca leaf and cocaine. As Colombia has aggressively erradicated coca leaf acreage, they've just planted more in Peru and Bolivia.

Sure, like cocaine production, tobacco processing is band for the environment (just as tobacco use is bad for people). But helicopters fumigating excess tobacco fields and tobacco farmers responding by chopping down forest to plant illicit tobacco fields would be even worse. Soon after, I imagine, illegally-grown tobacco will be smuggled across the border into Venezuela and loaded onto small planes for illicit flights overseas. Sound familiar?

Rather, the best policy is to discourage tobacco use, as many WHO-promoted policies aim to do. Unfortunately, except for restricting indoor smoking and tobacco advertising, Colombia hasn't bothered to enforce its anti-tobacco laws (at least in Bogotá). Children can still easily buy cigarettes and street vendors openly and illegaly sell cigarettes by the stick. Both crimes could be controlled with sting operations, but the police don't bother. I've also seen large cigarette displays in stores which violate the spirit of the new anti-tobacco law, if perhaps not its letter.

Another disturbing thing noted in El Tiempo's article is Minister of Agriculture Juan Camilo Restrepo's argument that, even if it wanted to, Colombia could not limit tobacco production because of obligations assumed in its free trade agreements. Of course, this is really just an excuse to earn money: Colombia's FTA with the United States allows it to export 4,200 metric tons annually of the stuff. (Keep that in mind you anti-drug warriors.)

But, taking the minister at his word, is it really possible that Colombia's free trade agreements prevent it from protecting its people's health? That's unthinkable - or should be.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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