cigarette pack Unintended consequences. Cigarettes to rollups
and tubes, to home grown tobacco.
cigarette pack

The tipping point for me came with the introduction of Fire Safe Cigarettes. I found my brands tasted stale and in 2011, just a few months after they mandated Fire Safe Cigarettes, I started to roll my own and haven't looked back.

The number of cigarettes I smoke has halved, from an average of 55 a day of manufactured to about 25 a day now. So I consume less tobacco because 25 rollups means about 12g of tobacco (using a rolling machine and 6mm filters), while 55 manufactured meant 33g of tobacco (my old brand contained 0.6g of tobacco). But it gets better, because in 2012 I started growing my own tobacco - and here's a photo of one of five boxes of dried tobacco leaves I have in a well ventilated shed.

Box of aged air cured tobacco leaves

Box of aged, air cured tobacco leaves.

Okay they're not much to look at; they're air cured, 15 months old and they're a mix of various types of Golden Virginia, so pleasant but bland. I've yet to grow or get a hold of Burley (I'm told a simple but satisfactory blend is 75% Virginia and 25% Burley), so I roll cigarettes with 50% commercial tobacco and the rest is my own home grown. It tastes perfectly fine that way and overcomes the tendency for my stuff to self extinguish. When I fancy a cigarette that contains my tobacco only, I fill a 6.5mm or 8mm tube - and that guarantees it won't go out.

As a result my need for commercial tobacco has dropped by about 70% and I know I'm not the only one who's gone this route, though quite how many there are out there is anyone's guess. So when I see statistics that indicate we're buying fewer packs of cigarettes I can fully understand why. It's not that tens of thousands have quit smoking entirely, it's just that they're smoking far fewer manufactured cigarettes - and the people who opt out completely, by growing their own, well they're not recorded in any statistic anywhere, except possibly those people who have to visit their GP and chose to be honest.

Legal sales of tobacco and an approximation of the the amount brought in as personal imports are all tobacco control has to go on - and they always deny and ridicule the amounts smuggled into the country, so they appear to be doing a spiffingly good job. That's fine because the numbers do hold up in various ivory towers. Less tobacco duty, less VAT, less profit for wholesalers, retailers and - very unfortunately - for tobacco growers.

Looking at tobacco production in 2015 for the big producers I see it's a mixed bag with the USA and India both showing lower production figures as well as lots of unsold produce. China was down, but that was weather related and Indonesia is down. Argentina saw increased production as did Brazil and Zambia while closer to home Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Bulgaria all saw increased production and sales (01).

It's been a tough year for peasant farmers in India where prices were very low for all grades. Tobacco controllers claim they can simply switch crops, as if all soil is equally fertile - or that alternative crops are even remotely as profitable. That's not the case as this article points out (02). As well as highlighting the plight of farmers it mentions that 45 million people in India depend on the crop in some way and the number of tobacco farmers who have committed suicide shows it really is a life and death struggle for some.

Last year we saw attacks on and the expulsion of tens of thousands of illegal migrants from Malawi and Zimbabwe from South Africa. There's 50% unemployment in Zimbabwe, so perhaps some of those "returnees" may have taken advantage of their governments' A1 permit that gives very poor people a plot of land for free (03), for whatever reason a lot of people growing tobacco in Zimbabwe are new to the business with tons of tobacco remaining unsold because it's very poor quality.

Malawi, where exports go mainly to Japan, is a slightly different story with a bumper crop and buyers taking advantage of that to pay as little as $1.20 a kilo - and there's still a backlog of unsold stock (04).

Certainly it seems the old adage of tobacco being "green gold" only applies to those who know their stuff and present correctly cured and graded tobacco at auction. For that the market is still very strong, even if prices at auction haven't been that great. With a per capita GDP of US$600 in Zimbabwe, it's still the only viable cash crop for many impoverished people. Of course those who have experience and been in the business for many years will have long term contracts with tobacco buyers at prices they negotiated years ago.

Zimbabwe is very keen to increase tobacco exports, however they have to deal with sanctions imposed by the West so their main export market is China. At the moment it suits China to buy from Zimbabwe for geopolitical reasons and because their 2015 crop was affected by the weather. Whether this can be sustained is questionable, partly because Chinese farmers are very efficient and are happy to sell at prices as low as $4.00 per kilo, so should their weather issues abate they should be able to satisfy local demand, especially if the crackdown on smoking in China does result in reduced consumption.

However the benefits of being able to deal with a pariah state like Zimbabwe is the buyers' ability to re-export it - and make a handsome profit in the process. For sure some can be used, if only to add to their buffer stocks, but I suspect some is finding its way into export markets traditional to China and labeled as Chinese.

Nevertheless it seems that the current oversupply will continue because countries like Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia are so dependent on tobacco for foreign exchange revenues. Yes prices are very low, yet it's a fickle business and with weather, bugs, disease and such to contend with, in the correct circumstances there's a potential windfall for those with good quality produce.

There's a growing market in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the USA to buy tobacco leaf to be used either to make refills for vaping machines, or to shred and use to pad out manufactured tobacco, or to use as a direct substitute for commercial tobacco. Given the quantities needed to fill a tube - and the dramatic increase in choice and availability of tubes, I strongly suspect many of these whole leaf tobacco purchases are being used primarily to fill tubes, with rollups a poor second.

But some of the "chop" tobacco that's gaining ground in Australia isn't from domestically grown tobacco. Rather it's smuggled into Australia in its leaf form, then shredded in Australia where it can be sold at a markup that makes the risk worthwhile. Warning, it's a large pdf file (05).

So yes there's an awful lot of tobacco that's not selling. That's not because we're quitting smoking, it's because it's poor quality, the wrong type, or because farmers are not prepared to accept losses. Some of the good stuff is being stored - and because tobacco gets much better as it ages - it gains in value. That's something American growers can afford to do, but not many peasant farmers.

Then there's us lot: self-sufficient or partially independent individual smokers. My box of tobacco, once sorted, graded, re-hydrated and shredded, will produce about 500g of rolling tobacco. That's a sizable saving when compared to store bought tobacco, though much of the enjoyment for me is in growing it and learning. And thousands of people like myself are doing the same and every year we're gaining skills and experience which, at some point, becomes expertise.

The UK isn't real good for growing outdoors, but with 10 plants producing about 500 to 600g of dry leaf, it takes very little time to cover the cost of a decent greenhouse. I know one gentleman who grows Virginia Bright in several greenhouses. Not for the leaf alone (which he sells in bulk to a whole-leaf retailer), that's nowhere near as profitable for him as selling the seeds. He sells them at £5 for 5 pods. Those with experience of growing their own will know each plant produces prodigious numbers of seed pods, certainly enough to gross him £60 a plant - and he has hundreds of them. He's got a neat little income earner and by raising them in greenhouses there's less likelihood of cross-fertilsation, so his seeds are genetically pure.

Of course it grows very well indeed in all countries along the Mediterranean without the need of any greenhouse, something that helps limit catastrophic price hikes in these countries.

Credit where due; tobacco control spawned vaping that's now a multi-million Dollar industry. They've enabled cigarette tubes to go mainstream. They're the largest single force behind the legal cross border trade in Europe and interstate trade in the USA. They've changed the stolid market for rolling tobacco with greater choice and competition - even in the UK (06)! They've made countless numbers of small scale risk-takers into very wealthy individuals through smuggling and retailing. They've helped bring us a huge choice of tobacco shredders, much to the delight of manufacturers and countless retailers. They single handedly helped establish the whole-leaf trade and through that they've hit the jackpot, they've made it so expensive to smoke that some people have taken to growing their own tobacco. So smoking becomes virtually cost free - and can become a useful income generator.

That's what I'd describe as unintended consequences. Factor all this into the Irish and British figures and perhaps tobacco control isn't quite as spiffing as they'd like their financial backers to believe.
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Smoking Scot
January 2016

For those interested in growing their own tobacco, I'd suggest Junican's sidebars and his posts from about March each year (07).