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June 13, 2012

The awkwardness of defending tobacco farming

World No Tobacco Day 2012 was on May 31. This year the World Health Organization focused on efforts by the tobacco industry to undermine efforts 'to expose and counter the tobacco industry's brazen and increasingly aggressive attempts to undermine the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) because of the serious danger they pose to public health.'

The FCTC includes recommendations for governments to limit where tobacco can be grown as a step to its eventual elimination, and to do away with tobacco marketing boards.

With tobacco-related health awareness campaigns increasing in many developed countries, both tobacco marketing and consumption, along with the increased health problems, are shifting to many of the developing countries where tobacco is grown. The small scale farmers who dominate tobacco cultivation are part of the same socio-economic group that suffers most from the harmful effects of tobacco consumption.

It is therefore understandable but extremely awkward that groups of small scale tobacco producers who depend on the crop for their livelihoods must oppose the public health efforts of the WHO FCTC.

Tobacco growing is an important part of the economy in countries like Malawi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. It accounts for a significant source of foreign currency earnings, and has the advantage of being a usually fairly lucrative international cash crop which is accessible to small scale producers. So despite whatever harmful human health effects tobacco smoking accounts for, in important growing countries there is a subset of people who bear the brunt of these effects who nevertheless also depend on tobacco cultivation for their livelihoods.

A May 29 meeting in Lusaka, Zambia of  the International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA) complained that the WHO FCTC was 'putting farmers’ livelihoods at risk while failing to offer an economically viable alternative crop.'

To which a reasonable response might be that tobacco consumption puts the health and lives of many more people at risk than the hardships that tobacco growers and dependent economies would suffer from the reduction of its cultivation. And while it is within the mandate of the WHO to highlight the harmful effects of tobacco, it is not its business to find a 'viable alternative' crop for tobacco farmers.

Tobacco will probably continue to be viable, lucrative crop for growers for some time to come yet. And as long as it remains a legal substance to consume, whatever the health effects, the ITGA has a valid point in arguing that it should be the market that should determine whether it makes sense for farmers to grow it or not, rather than government bans.  

But the writing is on the wall for tobacco farmers, and they would be wise to begin to diversifying into less controversial crops.

African Agriculture

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