EU Cash Could Stop us Going up in Smoke, Say Bulgarian Tobacco Growers
By Robert Mendick, Plovdiv
Bulgaria's Tobacco and Tobacco Products Institute, a relic of the country's Communist era, has seen better days. The laboratories are falling apart, the walls are yellowing and the furniture — unfailingly brown — remains unchanged in 40 years.
Most of the rooms are now empty — just 60 people work there compared with 360 in its heyday — and there is not enough money to keep the heating on. In the grounds, Soviet-era tractors are rusting and outbuildings crumbling.
But the good times, thanks to the political machinations of MEPs in Brussels more than 1,300 miles away, may just be about to roll again.
The institute, part of Bulgaria's ministry of agriculture, has been pushing for a return of a European Union subsidy for the country's thousands of tobacco growers. So too have Europe's other big tobacco growers.
The EU spends tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on antismoking health campaigns. Now it is considering spending hundreds of millions more to encourage the growth of a crop that causes widespread damage to health in the first place. Even the tobacco institute's director accepts that it may seem an odd move.
“We are for tobacco growing,” explains Prof Hristo Bozukov, 53, the institute’s director, “and against tobacco smoking. Maybe this sounds ridiculous.
“But tobacco can be exported out of the European Union to Asia where we can increase the number of consumers smoking.”
The institute, which is 90 miles from the capital, Sofia, has searched for other uses for the crop. It is experimenting with converting parts of the tobacco plant into biomass fuel while its latest innovation — men’s and women’s tobacco perfumes — is unlikely to make it into British stores any time soon.
Its joint venture with Bulgaria’s Institute for Roses and Aromatic Plants has come up with a women’s fragrance called Roses and Tobacco and a men’s eau de parfum called Tobacco and Roses.
With a big grin, Prof Bozukov presents The Sunday Telegraph with a bottle of the new perfume. On the presentational box is a photograph of three smoking cigars and three red roses and beneath that the words “Natural Spray for Men”.
The perfume is, of course, doomed to failure. But the desperate attempt to diversify shows the pressure the industry is under, hit by health reforms and a declining number of smokers in the West.
The MEPs’ proposed intervention could not be more timely.
Dr Stefka Kirkova, the institute’s head of cigarette testing, is delighted. In the upstairs tasting room, Dr Kirkova, 57, with a growl of a voice that comes from being paid to smoke cigarettes, is demonstrating her skills.
Dr Kirkova can test three different cigarettes simultaneously if she wants to, while her cigarette lighter is the size of a small axe. Cigarettes to her are like fine wines. To be tasted and savoured. She puffs on one, inhales deeply and closes her eyes.
“This is a very good cigarette,” she says between puffs. “It has a good aroma, complex, piquant, chilli average strength.”
She loves her cigarettes, loves her job. Has the tobacco industry been demonised, she is asked. “Da,” replies Dr Kirkova. Have the health risks been exaggerated? “Da,” she shouts.
Prof Bozukov is described in the industry as “the Ace” for his dedication to and knowledge of tobacco. Bulgaria is the second largest tobacco grower in the EU, behind only Italy, a country far larger, but its tobacco output is in serious decline.
In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, Bulgaria produced about 40,000 tonnes of tobacco; in 1989 it grew 160,000 tonnes. Any future EU subsidies will see production rise again.
“The tobacco industry in the European Union needs around 500,000 tonnes every year but the 11 countries in the EU that grow tobacco produce only around half that. The rest comes from imports,” says Prof Bozukov.
“People are looking for more tobacco but we cannot offer it because of the economic conditions.”
There are 30,000 registered tobacco growers in Bulgaria, many of them farming just small patches of land, eking out a living. They grow a variety of the plant called Oriental, which is perfectly suited to the mountainous terrain and poor quality soil.
On the fertile plains of central Bulgaria, Virginia tobacco is grown. It has a much larger leaf and tends to be grown on larger scale farms. A cigarette is made from blending different tobacco strains to produce different tastes.
One kilo of tobacco leaf typically fetches €2 (?1.70). The size of any future EU subsidy is unclear — it is still early in the process and there are still several hurdles to overcome — but pre-2004, according to Prof Bozukov, it was worth €1.50.
“That is why we want this subsidy to come back, “ he explains. “Tobacco is a legal product. I don’t see why we don’t have subsidies.
“Tobacco is very important for the Bulgarian economy. Two hundred thousand people are economically dependent on the tobacco industry. I am an optimist but I worry about the future of the tobacco industry.
“I know the producers and I know how difficult their business is for them.” To make the point, the institute arranged for The Sunday Telegraph to meet six struggling farmers.
They are gathered in a hotel about 20 miles away in Parvomay, a town surrounded by tobacco fields. The men do not look like farmers as we would think of them. They are thick-necked and stocky, and wear either shell suits or shiny suits. Their cars are expensive 4x4s or BMWs.
They chain-smoke through the meeting in the hotel’s restaurant, ignoring a recent Bulgarian law that bans smoking in public places.
The harvest has been a bumper one. The only problem is the men cannot get a decent price for their crop, weighing in at 3,500 tonnes.
Bulgaria’s largest cigarette manufacturer, Bulgartabac, a company set up by the Communist regime after the war but now in private ownership, is offering them €2 per kilogram. The men want a further 50 cents, which would make their tobacco worth more than ?7.5million.
But they are being undercut by cheaper, subsidised tobacco coming from non-EU states like Serbia and Macedonia.
The stakes for the farmers are huge — they are risking everything on a gamble. They, of course, cannot wait to get their hands on any future EU subsidy, as for now the race is on to sell the 2012 harvest.
The tobacco was planted in the spring and hand-picked — largely by the local Roma on wages of less than ?10 a day — in the summer and autumn. Now it sits in warehouses in urgent need of a buyer.
When spring comes and temperatures rise, the tobacco will be attacked by insects and could be destroyed.
It is a short drive to one of the warehouses. The building is about 100 yards long by 30 yards wide and inside are thousands of bales of tobacco. In all, about 150 tonnes of tobacco is kept there, worth in the region of ?300,000. The smell is intoxicating.
Samet Sabri, 33, the owner of this particular batch and who has another full warehouse elsewhere, is a worried man.
“Some of the leaves are starting to show signs of disease,” he says, holding a leaf blackened around the edges. “I have to sell this in the next two weeks. After it starts to warm up by just a few degrees we lose the crop.”
Yevgeni Hadzhiev, a fellow farmer but also the owner of the hotel where they hold their meetings, says an EU subsidy may help in the future.
But he feels certain no EU money would reach him anyway. Like many Bulgarians, he believes government officials and politicians are corrupt and will cream off most of the subsidy.
“We don’t have any positive expectations,” says Mr Hadzhiev, 36.
“In normal European countries it would happen. But not here. This is Bulgaria.”
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