Suppliers of classical oriental tobacco have matched production to diminished demand. Will they be able to accommodate a potential rebound?
TR Staff Report
The market for classical oriental tobacco has shrunk significantly in recent years. Following the European Union’s decoupling of tobacco subsidies from production and Turkey’s withdrawal of support for tobacco growers, production in the main sourcing areas plummeted; Turkey just harvested its smallest crop in living memory. At the same time, cigarette manufacturers decreased their use of oriental tobacco, creating an equilibrium between supply and demand. But as several oriental leaf traders pointed out during a recent visit to Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, it’s a fragile balance, and the diminished industry would struggle to satisfy a sudden increase in demand.
Oriental tobacco has been famously described as a cigarette’s “salt and pepper” because it lends flavor and kick to tobacco smoke. Oriental tobacco is an important component of American-blend cigarettes, which rapidly gained popularity in the second half of the 20th century. But as cigarette sales started stagnating in the United States and Europe—the world’s leading American-blend markets—demand for oriental declined accordingly. Most of today’s growth markets are located in Asia, where smokers prefer Virginia cigarettes.
Also, in an effort to cut costs, manufacturers have been replacing premium oriental tobaccos with less expensive varieties and compensated for the loss of aroma with flavorings. This too has had an impact on demand for the classical oriental varieties. Nikos Allamanis, a Greek tobacco industry expert, estimates current global supply and demand of classical oriental tobacco at between 100 million and 120 million kg.
On the supply side, production of classical oriental varieties has been affected by the withdrawal of support by the European Union and national governments. The Greek tobacco industry, for example, is a shadow of its former self. Whereas in the past the country’s growers could harvest more than 100 million kg of multiple tobacco varieties in a given year, they grew only two types of oriental in the most recent growing season—10 million kg of Basma and 10 million kg of Katerini (there’s also been a cautious revival of flue-cured Virginia production this year). The number of oriental leaf traders has shriveled along with the crops. Of the 22 companies operating in Greece in 2004, only four companies remain: Leaf Tobacco A. Michailides, Gleoudis, Missirian and SEKE. Socotab, which has a partnership with Universal Leaf, continues to trade Greek tobaccos but processes in neighboring Bulgaria. According to some estimates, there are about 15,000 tobacco farmers left in Greece, compared with more than 50,000 before decoupling.
On the bright side, the discontinuation of production subsidies has brought about a shift from quantity to quality. “Decoupling has weeded out the growers who cared only about volume,” says Nikos Tzoumas, managing director of Missirian. Once exposed to market forces, only the best growers could stay in business—growing in proper soils and following good agricultural practices. With the support of agricultural development programs, oriental tobacco cultivation today is concentrated in the regions of Thrace, East Macedonia and Central Macedonia. What’s more, today’s farmers are real farmers. Before decoupling, some “growers” were simply buying tobacco from others.
Production of classical oriental tobaccos in Bulgaria has been relatively stable, hovering near the 20 million kg mark during the past few years. But Michail Papanastasiou, manager of Leaf Tobacco A. Michailides’ recently opened Sandanski factory, is bracing for a 20 to 25 percent drop in the upcoming season, which he attributes to the discontinuation of national production subsidies and a decline in commercial prices. Subsidies currently account for 40 percent of the money farmers receive for their leaf.
“Bulgarian growers will lose almost half their income overnight,” says Papanastasiou. He expects peasant farmers to continue growing tobacco because they have no alternatives. “Maize, wheat and sunflower don’t provide the same level of income,” he says. “And they don’t come with a guaranteed market like tobacco does.” But larger tobacco growers are likely to switch to such crops because they can make up for the lower per-kilo price with volume.
With their livelihoods threatened, Bulgaria’s tobacco growers have taken to the streets. The government is unlikely to be swayed by their protests, however, as the economic slowdown has depleted its coffers.
Like in Greece, production of classical oriental tobacco has declined significantly in Turkey. The trade is looking at about 51 million kg of Izmir, Basma and Samsun this season—the smallest Turkish harvest on record. The decrease in Turkey was driven by the dismantling to the state monopoly, Tekel, which used to buy all unsold tobaccos at declared prices. For many years, this guaranteed uptake artificially boosted production, resulting in huge stocks and market distortions. At one point in time, Tekel was said to hold an inventory of 450 million kg. Those stocks have dwindled following privatization, and dealers estimate the former monopoly has only 11 million kg left, which will likely be sold within the next two years.
Without subsidies, farmers have found it difficult making a living growing tobacco. According to one trader, a kilo of tobacco used to cost the same as a bottle of raki, a popular Turkish drink. Today, a bottle of raki is much more expensive. And whereas in the past a typical farmer could buy a car with the income from a season’s tobacco crop, today he would be hard pressed to do so. Unsurprisingly, many farmers have abandoned tobacco growing. Currently, there are about 40,000 tobacco farmers in Turkey, compared with 62,000 only two years ago. This trend is likely to continue: The farmers who remain are aging, and their children would rather work in the cities than toil on the lands.
The attrition of tobacco farmers has merchants worried. While global supply and demand of classical oriental tobaccos are reasonably balanced today, it would be hard for the industry to accommodate a sudden increase in demand.
Such a reversal of fortunes for oriental leaf isn’t entirely unthinkable. During its November meeting in Uruguay, parties to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention for Tobacco Control agreed to take action against cigarette ingredients. And while it remains unclear exactly which ingredients might be targeted, some fear it could result in a de facto ban on burley tobacco.
Without burley and additives, oriental is the only option to enrich the flavor of cigarettes. Regulation aside, consumer preferences also appear to be shifting toward more natural products, such as Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co.’s American Spirit brand. Even multinationals have been launching additive-free versions of their flagship brands. Frederick de Cramer, general manager of Sunel Tobacco Co., has also noticed increased interest in classical oriental tobaccos from some nontraditional markets. Indonesia in particular has been a growth market for his company. “Turkish oriental blends well with the local tobaccos there,” he says.
At the same time, traders are keeping an eye on China, which is believed to be developing a blended cigarette with small amounts of oriental. Even if such a cigarette would include only 2 to 3 percent oriental, its impact could be huge, given the size of China’s cigarette market. China’s State Tobacco Monopoly Administration is reportedly also relaxing its concerns about blue mold. Traditionally, it has bought only tobaccos that are at least three years old, but it is said to be reconsidering that stance, possibly reducing the waiting time to one year.
While it’s always difficult to predict the market’s future requirements, and how the industry would respond to a possible ban on ingredients, the trade has its work cut out. Because so many growers have abandoned tobacco in the traditional growing areas, even a slight increase in demand would leave suppliers scrambling.
The industry has been working to develop new growing areas. Leaf Tobacco A. Michailides, for example, has been experimenting with oriental in several nontraditional areas and has been particularly enthusiastic about its results in India.
Sunel is active in Kyrgyzstan, while limited amounts of oriental are also grown in China, Thailand and certain Soviet Union successor states. But as one dealer points out, oriental leaf is finicky about soils and climates. Outside of the traditional growing areas, it is difficult to achieve the desired aroma and softness. The oriental varieties produced outside of the traditional growing areas do not compete directly with the classical oriental grown in the southern Balkans and Turkey.
The key to sustaining production in the traditional areas is farmer viability. “We need to give our growers better returns,” says De Cramer. To achieve this, tobacco companies in Greece and Turkey have been helping farmers increase yields and reduce their cost of production.
In Greece, leaf merchants have started buying tobacco earlier in the season—right after curing. The farmer gets cash in his pocket quicker and he doesn’t have to deal with storage. Of course, dealers take on extra stock under this scenario, but they are better equipped to do so than the farmer.
Traders have also been pushing the float system in Greece. “We first offer it free of charge to encourage the farmers to try it and then initiate their involvement in such practices,” says Tzoumas of Missirian. “We want to show farmers that they don’t have to run their business in the way their grandfathers did.”
At the same time, the industry has been moving toward more cost-effective packaging methods, abandoning time-consuming and expensive baling practices.
Because labor is the single biggest cost factor in oriental tobacco production, some dealers have been looking into mechanization of the process. Missirian, for example, has been working on a harvesting machine in cooperation with the engineering firm VIT. If successful, a harvester could change the cost calculation of oriental tobacco production completely.
Not all sourcing areas are equally suitable to mechanization, however. De Cramer says opportunity for mechanization in Turkey is limited because of the hilly topography of many tobacco plots and the limited support infrastructure in the villages. And the float system, he says, would be “a step too far” at this time in Turkey.
Instead, the Turkish industry is focusing on boosting yields through the use of certified seed and good agricultural practices, which should also help improve farmers’ margins.
In their efforts to sustain production of oriental tobaccos in the traditional growing areas, traders throughout the region are counting on the support of their customers. As one merchant points out, if cigarette manufacturers want more oriental tobaccos tomorrow, they had better make sure there will be farmers to grow it.