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A 10-Year Look at the Tobacco Industry Around the World

Public health messages about the risks have contributed to the decline of cigarette use in some Western countries, so it can be tempting to overlook the oversized and harmful role the tobacco industry continues to play around the world. Over a period of 10 years, photographer Rocco Rorandelli traveled to nine countries to document the impact of tobacco on health, the economy and the environment. Rorandelli’s project led him to fields, medical centers, vast warehouses, factories, museums and customs facilities.

In Bitter Leaves, to be released by GOST Books in September, Rorandelli’s illuminating photographs are presented alongside texts by scientist Dr. Judith MacKay that interrogate the complexity of the tobacco industry’s reach. Ultimately, MacKay says, tobacco creates “a seemingly endless cycle of poverty, destruction and death.”

As one of the first pages in Bitter Leaves points out, tobacco companies have long disputed that smoking is addictive. “We have not concealed, we do not conceal and we will never conceal…we have no internal research which proves that smoking…is addictive,” said Martin Broughton, the chief executive of British American Tobacco, in 1996. 

Rorandelli’s book looks at the aggressive marketing of tobacco around the world. Though the rugged Marlboro Man is an icon of the past, cigarettes are still one of the most marketed consumer products in existence. In Indonesia, for example, where more than 30 percent of children start smoking before the age of 10, tobacco companies have a high-profile presence in music, art, sport and cultural events.

The tobacco industry affects youth in other ways, too. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), about 1.3 million children work in tobacco fields, with the number increasing in countries like India and Zimbabwe. In the U.S. teenagers are allowed to work on tobacco farms, and many of the teen farm workers are undocumented. Because children have lower intoxication thresholds, “handling tobacco leaves causes the trans-dermic absorption of high doses of nicotine, equivalent to smoking up to 36 cigarettes,” says Rorandelli. “The resulting acute nicotine poisoning…is characterized by nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness and probable long-term developmental effects.”

In the decade that Rorandelli spent photographing the many facets of the tobacco industry, he has witnessed the ways it promotes the stripping of farmlands, threatens workers with toxic chemicals, exploits child labor and undocumented workers, and boldly aims campaigns at young people who have the potential to become lifelong consumers.

Bitter Leaves is a sobering and critical reminder that the tobacco industry’s vast reach into our health and homes, is not a thing of the past.

Bitter Leaves
Rocco Rorandelli
GOST Books

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