Rocco Rorandelli


Bitter Leaves

Behind the Smokescreen

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A long-term documentation of the global tobacco industry in China, India, USA, Indonesia, Nigeria, Italy, Germany, Bulgaria and Slovenia.

Bitter Leaves

The tobacco industry is a 400 years old business that today seems to know no limits in its expansion. If on one side the Western public opinion feels that the industry has been finally tamed by the recent anti-smoking regulations, in reality the number of smokers is globally increasing, reaching today 1 billion people, according to the WHO, and expanding its frontiers to new, vast markets in Asia and Africa. The industry is also increasing its revenues by cutting the production in the West and employing cheap and underage labour both in historically important markets, such as the US, and in new ones, such as China and India, which today together account for 50% of the global production. For all these reason, with revenues of 500 billion dollars, 2013 has been another favorable year for the big tobacco multinationals, which did not suffer from the recent economic crisis.

The proposed selection is part of my long-term documentation on various aspects of the tobacco industry which I started in 2008. Initially pushed by a personal motivation, the rationale behind the project stems from realizing that the apparent simplicity of cigarettes hides in reality a complex network of actors, scattered all over the world, whose work is rarely acknowledged. By understanding the invisible components behind the tobacco industry, my impartial, journalistic approach which I adopted, soon had to face the reality of the economic, social and health impact that such industry has on almost all its phases. It is true that tobacco multinationals adopt a corporate approach like many other industries, however this is the only case of a product which is toxic for both its producers and final consumers.

By traveling to different countries I witnessed how tobacco rarely brings wealth to the 20 million farmers that cultivate it, in addition to those employed in processing it. Often, children end up paying the highest price, and tobacco manipulation can cause Green Tobacco Sickness, a specific intoxication, for which young farmers are especially exposed to. The tobacco industry is among the first ones in investing in lobbying, according to LobbyFacts, and by doing so it is able to reduce the implementation of tobacco control policies in many countries. Companies are also constantly looking for new consumers, i.e. young smokers, utilizing aggressive advertising campaigns and lax regulations, as it happens in Indonesia, where up to 30% of children start smoking at the age of 10. Illicit trade and counterfeit tobacco (representing up to 50% of consumed cigarettes) are also responsible for revenues loss for governments, and for introducing in the market contaminated and cheap tobacco, reducing the effectiveness of regulations, often based on high purchase prices. Documents reveal that illicit trade has been utilized by tobacco companies to enter new markets, and in general to promote smoking in every social strata.

As a result, every year, 6 million people die of smoking related cancer, and governments in the West invest up to 10% of the health expenditures in curing this preventable disease. In the US, every year 96 billion dollars are spent to cure diseases linked to smoking. In many developing economies, cancer treatment is too expensive to be covered by the government, and only a few patients can undergo the necessary cure.

With the current project I wanted to highlight the impact of this global industry on the economy and well-being of people, from producers to the final consumers.