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World No Tobacco Day 2023: We need food, not tobacco, in an age of megathreats

The theme for this year’s World No Tobacco Day, “We need food, not tobacco,” to be commemorated on May 31, is apt given the rising food insecurity around the world. It aims to raise awareness about alternative crop production and marketing opportunities for tobacco farmers.

As reported in the latest World Bank Group Food Security Update, domestic food price inflation remains high around the world. Data for the January-April 2023 period, show high inflation in almost all low- and middle-income countries, as well as rich countries. This trend further adds to food insecurity that manifests in high levels of acute hunger – more than 100 million people each year for the last three years have been food insecure, largely driven by conflict, climate shocks, and economic turbulence.

Freeing up more land for food crops

One way to help tackle acute food insecurity is to free up land used for tobacco cultivation to expand economically viable alternative food crops farming. In 2021, the total area of harvested tobacco amounted to around 3.13 million hectares globally.

Tobacco is not generally a profitable crop for most smallholder farmers. For example, survey data from Indonesia show that tobacco farmers’ profit from tobacco are negative, and incomes of farmers who had given up tobacco production were found to be higher than those of current tobacco farmers, who tended to be more dependent on social assistance and health care benefits provided by the government than former tobacco farmers.

Among the top tobacco leaf producing countries, the share of tobacco farming to gross domestic product (GDP) is minimal (less than 1% in 2018, except in two countries, where it was less than 3%). The negative consequences for farm workers’ health, as well as for the environment, however, are not considered in the economic valuation of tobacco leaf production.

Given that these social costs are not recognized or compensated by the market, they become long-terms liabilities for governments, becoming a de facto hidden subsidy to the tobacco industry at a high cost to public finances. These issues undermine the economic viability of tobacco leaf production and yield a strong justification for considering alternative crops, particularly for food.

The environmental and human capital costs of tobacco production

The cumulative harmful impacts of tobacco production on the environment and human capital are substantial, and require renewed attention by policy makers and investors.  The environmental impact includes degradation of soil quality, deforestation due to land clearing to grow the crops and procure wood for tobacco curing, improper disposal of containers and runoff of pesticides and other chemicals that pollute the water supply sources of entire communities, and the generation of carbon emissions.

Cigarette butts are the world’s most frequently littered item, and tobacco filters (made of cellulose acetate) constitute the number one ocean plastic, more numerous than plastic bottles, bags, or straws. Disposing of e-cigarette cartridges, that contain plastic, electronic and chemical waste, is a growing problem.

Women and children most exposed to health risks

In terms of public health, research shows that tobacco farm laborers, who often are women and children, often have limited knowledge regarding the toxicity of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals used for tobacco cultivation.

Unprotected exposure to these chemicals may poison them and/or increase their risk of developing certain chronic diseases. In addition, farmer laborers’ transdermal and respiratory exposure to high doses of nicotine when handling tobacco leaf can result in a form of acute nicotine poisoning called Green Tobacco Sickness. This negative public health impact adds to the social and economic toll of more than 8.7 million deaths per year attributed to tobacco use globally, a number that exceeds the total 6.9 million deaths reported during the entire COVID-19 pandemic, to date.

Moreover, the heavy use of child labor and women’s labor in tobacco farming makes these populations vulnerable to health risks and commercial exploitation, in addition to undermining human capital development, and contributing to the alarming setbacks for women’s health taken place in recent years, that hamper efforts for achieving gender equality. Building human capital is increasingly being recognized as the main driver of sustainable and inclusive long-term economic growth—addressing the harmful impacts of tobacco leaf production, innovatively supporting greater food security, and enabling healthier communities will constitute key elements within this process.

How can tobacco crop substitution be supported?

As the supply and demand provisions of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control are implemented worldwide, the long-term prospects of shrinking the tobacco leaf market suggest that opportunities exist for farmers to switch to other, potentially more profitable, crops. However, as noted in a World Bank Group report, even those farmers who may already want to shift from tobacco to alternative crops often find themselves caught in a cycle of dependence on tobacco firms.

In many countries, tobacco is produced under contract farming arrangements where companies provide low-interest cash loans or credit, fertilizer, seeds, construction of tobacco leaf-curing facilities, and guaranteed payment upon delivery of crops. Consequently, a large-scale crop switch from tobacco would require a concerted effort by governments and international partners to support transition period financial incentives; offer affordable loans to purchase seeds, fertilizers, and other farm supplies; invest in storage and transportation; provide technical assistance; support the development of agriculture extension and irrigation systems; create market channels for alternative crops; and support advocacy within tobacco-growing communities.

The support provided by the World Bank Group to countries over the past decade to raise tobacco taxes and prices for lowering consumption, reducing tobacco-attributable sickness and death, and mobilizing additional domestic resources, can help make this shift. For instance, in the Philippines, the “Sin Tax” reform that was adopted by the government in 2012 and supported by the World Bank Group, not only raised the taxes and prices on cigarettes to curb consumption, but mandated that out of the additional budgetary resources collected, 80 percent be allocated to support the expansion of national health insurance coverage, and a portion of the balance be allocated to assist tobacco farmers to switch from growing tobacco to growing other crops.

Global initiatives such Tobacco-Free Portfolios, can help as well, by raising awareness and calling mainstream financial actors to integrate tobacco exclusions into their investment decisions.

Looking ahead

Novel approaches are required to address complex challenges such as food insecurity. Albeit smaller in scale than other options, tobacco crop substitution could enhance efforts to increase access to an adequate and affordable food supply, reduce hunger, and prevent malnutrition.  It would also contribute to reducing the harmful environmental impact of tobacco production and controlling tobacco use–the leading preventable cause of death in the world.




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