The Lucrative Dangers of Tobacco Farming [1]


August 1, 2023

The global spread of tobacco production and use is like gun proliferation in the US. It is one of those evils that causes widespread harm – such as lung cancer, the blocking of arteries and damage to unborn children – but also supports a large number of people and benefits many businesses.

In 2022, the global area under tobacco production was 4.3 million hectares and about 125 countries were producing the crop. Eighty percent of tobacco consumption is in low-and middle-income developing countries. Tobacco has created vested interests, which are difficult to control.

On May 31, the World Health Organisation and public health champions internationally came together on World No Tobacco Day on the theme of “grow food, not tobacco”. The global campaign aims to raise awareness about hazards of tobacco production and opportunities for tobacco farmers to grow alternative sustainable, nutritious crops. It also aims to expose the tobacco industry’s efforts to interfere with attempts to substitute tobacco growing with sustainable crops, thereby contributing to the global food crisis. It is, indeed, a familiar tactic, also used by the US gun lobby.

The WHO’s efforts are both timely and worthwhile. But the obstacles to achieve “no tobacco”, are also many. Yet, the challenges and solutions are worth examining.

First, the economic benefits to the major tobacco-producing countries are considerable. Tobacco is a labour-intensive, drought-tolerant, hardy and short-duration crop that can be grown on soils with few alternatives.

In India, the second-largest tobacco producer and exporter after China, an area of 0.45 million hectares (0.27 per cent of the country’s net cultivated area) produces about 750 million kilograms of tobacco leaf, according to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. Grown under diverse conditions, in India alone, according to the ICAR, tobacco provides at least thirty-six million people with a livelihood – six million farmers, twenty million agricultural labourers as well as the ten million people who work in processing, manufacturing and exporting tobacco.

First, governments need to step up research that increases the profitability of alternative crops, help sustain natural resources, increase public education to raise understanding about the adverse effects of tobacco use, increase taxes on tobacco products to make them less attractive to consumers, and use the resources raised from such taxes for more useful purposes.

Second, major consumers and producers need to make collective agreements, rather than take advantage of each other’s tobacco-control strategies in a highly competitive world trade environment.

High prevalence of tobacco use in China and the scale of its tobacco industry is not only its single most serious public health problem, but also the ultimate test case for the global tobacco-control campaign.

Cheng Li of Brookings Institute argues that an effective campaign to get the country off smoking, despite daunting challenges and deep-rooted institutional barriers, has the potential to change the course of the tobacco epidemic in the world’s second-most populous country and lead to better health outcomes internationally. He attributes slow acknowledgement of the devastating public health crisis primarily to tobacco being one of the largest sources of tax revenue – accounting for between 7 and 10 per cent of total annual fiscal revenues.

Tobacco revenue is also important in neighbouring Japan, where since 1985 combined revenue from national and local cigarette taxes has rarely fallen below $18.2 billion. In Brazil, also a major tobacco producer, total tax revenue from tobacco-related products in 2018 was worth about $2.78 billion.

Pushing low-tar cigarettes as safer than regular cigarettes has become the tobacco promoters’ main strategy against tobacco control. Many international tobacco companies have invested heavily into the development and promotion of e-cigarettes as a less-harmful alternative to traditional cigarette smoking. But WHO has described these devices as “harmful to health and unsafe”.

Given the intertwined webs of political power, commercial incentives, institutional and regional interests, social relationships and cultural norms, experts including Margaret Chan, former director general of the WHO, recommend a bottom-up strategy. Involve civil society organisations and citizens in joint work with governments and local authorities to increase buy-in and sustainability of the reformed policies. Creating an agricultural alternative for farmers and economies tied to tobacco will not happen overnight, but with the right vision and political will, it can become a reality – leading to a more effective, ethical, and sustainable use of precious land resources and protecting human health.

[1] A previous  version was published as an e-Column in The National, July 21, 2023

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