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Last Updated: Monday, 22 March, 2004, 01:24 GMT
EU eyes ending tobacco subsidies
Tobacco factory
Europe produces 300m tonnes of tobacco every year
European Union agriculture ministers are opening talks on plans to phase out subsidies to farmers growing tobacco.

More than 600m is paid each year to support the industry, but proposals to end the subsidy face strong opposition from Mediterranean countries.

The talks in Brussels will consider replacing the subsidies with payments to encourage alternative crops.

Britain supports the change, but Mediterranean states say it will force many poor farmers to abandon the land.

Around 80,000 farmers, mostly in poor regions of Greece and Italy, get about 5,000 per hectare from European taxpayers to grow tobacco - 20 times the subsidy paid to grain farmers.

Wildlife 'threat'

The BBC's environment correspondent Tim Hirsch says apart from the obvious contradiction with EU health policies, environmental groups such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds believe the subsidies encourage damage to wildlife because of the large amount of chemicals needed to grow tobacco.

Along with olive oil and cotton, tobacco was left out of the reforms agreed by farm ministers last year.

Around 300,000 tonnes of tobacco is produced in France, Italy, Spain and Greece taken together.

But sceptics fear a rural way of life in Europe could be set to disappear for good.

Pierre Haein, director of France Tabac, the biggest tobacco co-op in France, said: "The disappearance of Europe's tobacco industry will in no way resolve the issue of smoking and health.

"As long as smoking is legal in Europe, it's obvious that cigarette manufacturers will get their tobacco supply from somewhere else in the world."

The BBC's Sarah Mukherjee
"The European Union is the world's fifth largest tobacco producer"

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