herald

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Children pay the price of tobacco

Documentary reveals true cost of smoking for Malawi youngsters

Smoking is an expensive habit as a well as a dangerous one. I know; I smoke. At the last count (ie, yesterday evening) a packet of cigarettes cost €8.50. A shocking waste of money.

But spare a thought for the children, many younger than nine, featured in Jenny Kleeman's Unreported World programme. They labour for 12 hours a day, almost every day, in the tobacco fields of Malawi, where 65pc of foreign income comes from tobacco and farmland has been so poisoned by the crop that it's virtually impossible to grow food in it any more.

The children are being poisoned, too, by tobacco dust. It gives them headaches and coughs, and makes them feel nauseous. The palms of their hands end up coated with the same kind of brown gunk you see on a smoker's fingertips.

They get ill so we can make ourselves ill, and make the tobacco companies rich.



subsistence

If they're lucky, the children and their tenant-farmer parents -- who also work in the fields, because there's no other way to scrape a subsistence living -- might end up earning about €25 a year. That would barely buy you three packets of cigarettes.

Kleeman tracked down one of the landlords. Far from being a rich fatcat, he wasn't much better off than the people working in his fields. He couldn't afford to pay them more money, he said, because the tobacco buyers -- who spend several million a day at the tobacco auctions on behalf of their clients -- conspire to keep prices artificially low. He's as much "trapped" by tobacco as they are, he claimed.

Though primary school is free in Malawi, one-third of children don't attend, because their parents need them to work and earn money. They end up without an education, which means they'll never find a job outside the tobacco fields. It's a vicious cycle.

Kleeman and a district employment officer, whose job is to make sure employers aren't using child labour, visited a tobacco farm owned by a former MP. There were children all over the place, sorting tobacco leaves.

The officer told Kleeman this man would face a penalty of five years in jail, or a fine of about €150. We later learned he had suffered neither. The court let him off with a slap on the wrist and a caution.

Kleeman went to interview a government minister who'd twice agreed to meet her, and twice stood her up. It was third time unlucky. She got inside his office, but a flunky told her he wasn't there -- and wouldn't be back until she and her camera crew had left the country.

Unreported World is a good, solid, worthy series. It does exactly what it says on the tin. And yet I have a problem with it. Twenty-five minutes (or more like 22 if you allow for the adverts at either end of the programme) isn't enough to do any subject justice.

The best current affairs programmes -- the kind we used to have -- follow the money trail, which in this case leads to the big tobacco companies like Philip Morris and British-American Tobacco, who are the real villains of the piece.

"This is the last chapter," Philip Glenister's DCI Gene Hunt said ominously in Ashes to Ashes. Well, not quite; it was the penultimate episode of the time-warp cop show. Next week, we've been promised, all will be revealed and we'll finally find out who Hunt really is.

But does anyone care any more? I've never really warmed to the series' mixture of sci-fi, police procedural, nostalgia, knockabout comedy and violence, and the central conceit was already at snapping point by the end of its brilliant predecessor, Life on Mars.

That said, I'm still smoking after Unreported World, so I'll still tune in to Ashes to Ashes for the real last chapter. Some things are inevitable.

STACEY'S STARS

unreported world HHHII

ashes to ashes HHIII

Promoted articles

Entertainment News