Tobacco farming causes significant damage to the environment and farmers are often in debt as prices are low and production costs are high.
This is according to Dr Neil Schluger from Vital Strategies, who was speaking at the World Conference on Tobacco or Health.
“The impact on the environment is substantial. There is land clearing and de-forestation, and a lot of chemicals are put in the soil and tobacco has a high water requirement,” said Schluger. “The benefits for the tobacco farmers are miniscule and many are in debt.”
In China there are 20 million tobacco farmers, and they are heavily concentrated in the Yuxi and Yunnan regions.
The WHO assisted to set up a farmers to grow crops other than tobacco, particularly fruit and vegetables.
The WHO’s Kelvin Khow Chuan Heng reported that, compared to 2012, tobacco planting dropped significantly, whereas the area devoted to vegetables and fruits has increased by 24 percent.
“One farmer had started to grow flowers and was now exporting them all over the world, whereas in the past he had been struggling,” said Khow.
But Lutgard Kagaruki from the Tanzanian Tobacco Control Forum said the forum had initially had success in persuading farmers to grow maize, rice, sesame, sunflowers and cow peas as alternatives to tobacco.
“But the market has suddenly fallen away. The farmers have had a bumper crop of maize, sunflowers and cow peas but the crops are rotting in the warehouses because there is no market,” said Kagaruki. “ With cow peas there was only one buyer but he is no longer there. Some farmers were also threatened. We suspect interference by the tobacco industry. An Italian has offered to buy all the tobacco and farmers are now thinking of returning to tobacco.
“When we talk about alternatives, we need to have a concrete plan of sustainability to ensure the continued survival of the farmers.”
Heng said that the WHO was collating global experience on crop substitution and would be sharing success stories with governments.
Meanwhile, Uganda’s health minister, Sarah Opendi Achieng, said: that it had been hard to bring in its tobacco control law because the tobacco industry was “very aggressive” in opposing the law.
“We had to reach out to the farmers because trade is involved. We had to rally the support of the tobacco growers to get them to see the danger of smoking. But the industry was doing the same, telling them they were easy to live because they grow tobacco,” said Achieng.
“It was not easy but because of the strong political will we had from the top and strong media support we were able to focus on the health aspects and pass a tobacco control law that is comprehensive – and it is an offence for this industry to interfere once the law is implemented, which is a provision of the law we are particularly proud of.”