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Tobacco Slave documentary

Tobacco Slave explores the neocolonialist exploitation of tobacco farmers. It was made by the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) and STOP.

A film by the University of Bath illuminates how the blatant colonialism of the past continues to have strong vestiges in the global tobacco industry of today.

Tobacco Slave is released by the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) at the University of Bath and industry watchdog Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products (STOP).

It was made by award-winning filmmakers Roy Maconachie, Professor of Natural Resources and Development at the University of Bath, and Simon Wharf, a videographer based at the university.

Roy and Simon have previously produced films on exploitation in cobalt mining and gold and diamond mining in Africa.

A cycle of debt and poverty

The film explores the experiences of tobacco farmers in Malawi who work for tobacco leaf-buying companies for very little pay, and who have to endure poor working conditions. These companies supply their products to transnational tobacco companies that continue to fuel the global tobacco epidemic.

The film focuses on Bristol, United Kingdom, a historic hub of the transatlantic slave trade and the headquarters of cigarette giant Imperial Brands.

The title comes from Ellen, one of the four farmers featured, who says she doesn’t want her children to be “tobacco slaves.” While global tobacco corporations enjoy billions of dollars in sales, the farmers say they do not earn enough to buy furniture or pay for their children’s school tuition. They describe children working alongside their parents in unsafe conditions, being exposed to disease from handling tobacco leaf, and lacking education because they either can’t take the time to attend school or are too exhausted.

Tobacco leaves drying

Imperial practices in the modern age

Industry experts and historians have examined modern-day tobacco industry practices that bear a disturbing resemblance to colonial-era exploitation in Africa.

Bristol, once a major hub of the transatlantic slave trade and the colonial tobacco industry, is in sharp focus. Imperial Brands evolved from the Wills company, a tobacco business founded in Bristol in 1786 and the first British company to mass-produce cigarettes.

It is one of two global cigarette companies facing a legal suit brought on behalf of thousands of tobacco farmers in Malawi, alleging that it facilitated or encouraged exploitative working practices.

A farmer among tobacco plants

Want to know more?

Find out more about the film and details of screenings.

Filming was conducted in Malawi, Nairobi (Kenya) and Bristol (UK).

The film was screened in Bristol on Thursday 2 November with Councillor Asher Craig, Roy Maconachie, Dr Lonjezo Masikini-Phiri and Jendayi Serwah as panelists.

An edited film of the discussion will be added to this page and at at a later stage.

Screenings have also been held in New York with future events planned in Africa, South America, Asia and Europe. If you are interested in arranging a screening in your region, please email

Find out more about how farmers grow debt while tobacco companies grow profit.