HAVANA, Apr 12
While Cuba has joined most of the rest of the world in adopting anti-smoking measures, the Caribbean island nation’s scientists have also developed a new, less harmful variety of tobacco to lessen the ill effects of this health-threatening habit.
In Cuba, smoking is responsible for one-third of all deaths from cancer, which in turn is the second leading cause of death (after heart disease). While the government launched a major campaign early this year aimed at encouraging Cubans to quit smoking, the new “safer” tobacco is meant to lessen the harm caused to those who refuse to “butt out.”
The recently developed strain of tobacco, called IT-2004, was created through traditional cross-breeding methods and has a lower tar and nicotine content. It will be used to produce cigarettes for the domestic market.
According to the state-run Tobacco Research Institute (IIT), the new variety of tobacco is also better able to withstand drought, as well as being more resistant to pests and disease. It also boasts a yield of up to three tons per hectare.
Cuban experts say the cancer-causing potential of cigarettes does not depend solely on the type of tobacco used, but also the way in which the tobacco plants are grown, in terms of the distance between seeds when planted and the processes followed for irrigation, fertilisation and other procedures. The way the tobacco leaves are processed after picking also plays a role.
They also stress that Cuban tobacco is grown through strictly traditional methods, with absolutely no genetic modifications of any kind. This holds true whether the tobacco is used to make cigarettes for domestic consumption or cigars for the lucrative international market.
The distinctive flavour and aroma of Cuban cigars result from a large number of genes, which would make any attempts to improve the tobacco through genetic engineering both complex and risky.
Moreover, most of the cigars exported by Cuba are sold in European countries, where the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is generally frowned upon.
Researchers at the ITT have also developed varieties of tobacco that are more resistant to tobacco blue mould, a particularly destructive disease whose airborne spores can travel distances of up to 5,000 kilometres. These are now the only varieties of tobacco grown on the 39,000 hectares of land devoted to this crop in Cuba.
To protect their crops from insects and other pests, tobacco farmers use biological agents like Bacillus thuringiensis, along with chemical products.
The tobacco industry brings Cuba roughly 300 million dollars in revenues annually. Cuban cigars account for 70 percent of all the cigars smoked in the world, without counting the United States, where the Cuban trade embargo prohibits the import of this or any other product from the island.
But despite the money-making potential of the tobacco industry, Cuba has joined many other countries around the world in adopting measures to combat smoking. Around 30 percent of the country’s 11 million inhabitants are smokers.
Smoking in air-conditioned or enclosed public spaces like offices, meeting halls, theatres, cinemas, and medical, educational and sports facilities has been banned since February as a result of a ministerial resolution.
Bus drivers and food service workers are also prohibited from smoking on the job.
All cigarette vending machines have been removed, while it is illegal to sell cigarettes to minors or in stores, restaurants or other businesses located within 100 metres of schools.
“I still smoke like I always have, but now I go out into the hall, because I don’t want to be reprimanded. Before, I used to smoke in the classroom,” said university professor Manuel Garc�a, who has smoked for almost 30 of his 55 years.
In addition to a general warning that cigarette smoking is harmful to one’s health, Cuban cigarette packages now contain information on tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide content.
“I know these are harmful toxins that are bad for your health, and can cause cancer, but I just can’t seem to kick the habit,” Garc�a told IPS.
Cuban cigarettes have been labelled with general warnings about the health hazards of smoking since the 1970s. But anti-smoking efforts have been stepped up considerably after Cuba signed, last May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which entered into force this past February.
The convention addresses such aspects as cigarette advertising, tobacco industry sponsorship, warning labels on packaging, pricing and taxation, contraband and second-hand smoke.
According to WHO statistics, five million people around the world die every year from smoking-related causes, and this number could double by the year 2020 if current smoking trends continue.