Samoan tobacco pays income but on decline

The art of making Samoan tobacco has enabled a man to earn an income to take care of his family’s essential expenses but research shows practise on the decline.

Sagote Siaosi, who hails from Leauvaa and sells tobacco at the Fugalei market, told the Samoa Observer that he is grateful for his knowledge of making Samoan tobacco (tipi).

He said the income he earns enables him to put food on the table for his family as well as send his children to school.

"I am so lucky to have them and gain the knowledge of my parents and other relatives who have passed on to me how to make the tipi,” he said in an interview. “It has helped me a great deal in providing for my family's needs.”

Mr Siaosi has been in the tobacco business for much of his life, watching his parents, uncles, aunties and other relatives and consequently followed in their footsteps. 

He said he was surprised at how a “humble plant” could be utilised but has since then adopted a pragmatic view of earning a living.

"Who would've thought that these plants can actually make more money and help pay for expenses such as school fees, put food on the table and other things?

"Not everyone gets a chance to work in an office, so we should make use of the resources available to us. 

“Some people are not great in school but can use their talents to make a living for themselves.”

And with Samoa's minimum wage currently sitting at $3 per hour, Mr Siaosi's earnings are impressive, though dependent on mother nature at times. 

"We make $200 tala a day if our sale isn't going well, but if it's our lucky day then we may get $500 tala or more," he said. "If it rains for two weeks, then no doubt there will be no harvest and we won't be able to make the tobacco because the process of making it depends on the sun."

The popularity of Mr Siaosi's product also comes down to price with the cost of cigarettes going for $15 for a packet of 20 sticks, whilst the Samoan tobacco is about $5 a pouch in Apia. 

"There are so many people demanding our tobacco due to the cost of the other packets, but there are also some who hate the smell of the tobacco,” he added.

A customer Tumua Taupule says he prefers Samoan tobacco to the other ready-made and processed packets as he claims they are healthier.

"I always buy the tipi and not any other cigarettes because I can only smoke the Samoan tobacco, I am used to it and I have grown to like it and it's good for my health," he said.

While the health benefits of Samoan tobacco are debatable, there is no doubt about the addictive properties of nicotine, a key ingredient in tobacco products. 

This can be seen in a World Health Organisation report on Samoa from 2019 that revealed that 41 per cent of males and 17 per cent of females smoke tobacco.

One such willing smoker is 23-year-old Justin Tanu, who prefers cigarettes over tipi as he says there's too much work that goes into growing your own tobacco.

"I don't know but I wouldn't go for the Samoan tobacco, I know I heard my elders talk about it, saying it's healthy and all that, but come on, it takes a lot of time to prepare it,” he said. “You buy it, you need those other extra papers and you have to make it into a smoke form, you know, it takes a lot of time. 

“But with the cigarettes, you just buy it from the store, light it and there you go.”

And while the market for tobacco products remains, there appears to be a downward trend in terms of passive smoking among Samoans.

A study in 2017 on tobacco smoking trends over four decades showed that over the past 35 years tobacco smoking has steadily declined among Samoan adults, and is the only non-communicable disease risk factor to show marked declines during that period.  

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