Organic Tobacco: Unfair Competition?

When a German court ruled recently that the use of the term “organic,” when applied to tobacco products, was “misleading and constitutes unfair competition,” one has to question whether governments themselves are really striving to be fair and whether they can ever show a lack of bias regarding tobacco. The target: Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company’s Natural American Spirit 100% Organic Tobacco cigarettes.

A statement by the court’s spokesperson, who said “the concept ‘organic’ implies that such a cigarette is not harmful,” illustrates a basic lack of understanding of the term “organic.”

In the European Union and many other countries, producers are required to obtain organic certification in order to market products as organic.

Organic plants are grown according to certain production standards - without the use of conventional pesticides, artificial fertilizers, human waste, or sewage sludge; processed without ionizing radiation or food additives. When applied to livestock, it generally means animals are reared without the routine use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones. In most countries, organic produce must not be genetically modified.

Is an organic cheeseburger by definition healthy? Is organic vodka not harmful? Consumers of organic merchandise are willing to pay a hefty surcharge for the privilege of obtaining their organic cotton t-shirt or their organic bacon, organic egg & organic cheese sandwich, and the justification may go far beyond an “implication” that the product is “not harmful.”

Organically-grown plants might not even be part of the food chain: organic cotton isn’t consumed at all, but its benefit is that its utilizing an “earth-friendly” process of farming. Would ethanol produced from organically-grown corn be unfair competition if a market existed for its product?

Prior to only a century ago, mankind’s entire history of agricultural production was by definition organic, as chemical fertilizers and other scientific inventions had yet to be invented. Native American Indians planted individual corn seeds in small holes with a dead fish for nutrients. Are all consumers dupes for voting with their wallets when it comes to organic crops? Organic farming implies a big list of benefits to the planet which may or may not imply a harm-free product in and of itself: reduced soil erosion, uncontaminated water supplies, protection of farm workers exposed to high concentrations of chemicals, supported small family-owned farms, promoting bio-diversity... to name just a few.

Organic food tastes better. And so does organic tobacco. That organic steak could still be high in fat and cholesterol. Let’s not mix all our metaphors on this complex subject.

Shame on Germany’s courts for confusing consumers and attempting to rewrite the definition of organic as just another excuse to tighten the screws on tobacco.

E. Edward Hoyt III