It is called the “Green Tobacco Sickness” or GTS, a form of nicotine poisoning from directly handling tobacco leaves, which poses a real risk to tobacco farmers or workers, warned the HealthJustice Philippines, a non-government organization committed to tobacco control.
HealthJustice highlighted that tobacco farmers who plant, cultivate, and harvest tobacco leaves may absorb nicotine levels equivalent to 50 cigarettes in a single day, based on estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO). This is on top of intensive handling of insecticides and other toxic chemicals during cultivation.
Furthermore, citing research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), risk for nicotine poisoning increases when nicotine from tobacco leaves mixes with rainwater, morning dew, or sweat and easily enters the bloodstream through unprotected skin without chemical- or water-resistant clothing.
Symptoms of GTS may show after several hours from exposure to tobacco plants which include nausea and vomiting. Workers then become more vulnerable to dehydration and heat illnesses, ranging from heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, to heat stroke, while working under hot and humid conditions.
“These health harms from the production of tobacco seriously put at stake the health and welfare of tobacco farmers, their families and communities. The pervasiveness of the health harms of tobacco from production to consumption should prompt the government to reverse its policy of allowing and supporting tobacco production, ” said Dr. Jaime Galvez Tan of HealthJustice.
Although GTS symptoms fade within 24 hours, uncertainty looms while no study has currently been done to uncover its long-term effects on tobacco plantation farmers or workers. Moreover, its global incidence or prevalence are yet unknown with limited studies available to date.
Above all, HealthJustice emphasized shifting to food crop production will not only protect the health of farmers, but will also ensure adequate food supply in the country beset with widespread hunger.
“The serious and persistent hunger in the country should compel the Philippine government to reconsider its development program for tobacco production. It should prioritize food production instead of tobacco, a commodity product known for its economic, social, human and environmental harms. Honoring our FCTC commitment to shift to food crops from tobacco production is a viable pathway of addressing the widespread hunger in the country”, said Lirio Cordova of the Rural Poor Institute for Land and Human Rights Services, Inc. (RIGHTS, Inc.)
Several surveys from the Social Weather Station indicate the high incidence of hunger in the Philippines. In 2022, 3 million Filipino families faced hunger, 3.4 million in 2021, and 2.5 million in 2020. The hunger situation intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic, added Ms. Cordova.
This year’s upcoming celebration of World No Tobacco Day, with the theme “We need food, not tobacco”, aims to mobilize governments for support and to empower farmers to move away from tobacco and transition to alternative and sustainable crops, in adherence to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). This way, countries become equipped to contribute to food security and help alleviate the global food crisis.