Moving past the problematisation of tobacco farming: insights from South India

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Tobacco control actors increasingly recognise the importance of supply-side issues in seeking to address the problem of global tobacco consumption. However, research in this field often depicts tobacco production as a problem for farmers and as a malaise of the global industry. This paper the case of chewing tobacco producers in South India to explore why tobacco remains so resilient in this region.


Semi-structured interviews with 68 tobacco farmers and traders in 38 villages across five districts of Tamil Nadu, triangulated with informal discussions with over 100 agrarian actors both connected and unconnected to tobacco, extensive ethnographic field notes, and interviews with state and NGO actors. Representative sampling was not possible due to a lack of data on what constituted the ‘population’. Therefore interviews were based on snowballing methods, with the aim being to capture the general scenario across five districts where tobacco is produced.


The case highlighted the lack of a clear ‘industry’ which was exploiting farmers. Instead, tobacco was favoured by producers due to its drought resistance in a region of water scarcity, and it offered high levels of remuneration in certain circumstances where farmers are able to cure the leaf. It also afforded increased bargaining power to farmers in relation to traders as it is able to be stored and sold in low seasons by some. Finally, where exploitation of farmers by traders was evident, this was not necessarily unique to tobacco.


The paper ultimately advocates further research on locally specific settings to better understand why tobacco cash crop remains so resilient in the Global South today, and a move beyond problematisations of the tobacco industry alone when looking at production.

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