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FCTC ratified to protect citizens from harmful exposure to tobacco, says Ministry of Health

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Malawi’s Ministry of Health (MoH) says the country ratified the FCTC to protect citizens from the harmful effects of direct or indirect exposure to tobacco and its products, which is aimed at reducing lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

“Malawi ratified to show high-level political commitment to reducing public health effects and from tobacco products. With that high level of political commitment, Malawi can negotiate with investors on its diversity plans,” says MoH spokesperson Adrian Chikumbe.

Tobacco is also unhealthy for farmers, labourers and their families as well as factory workers who process it.

Dr William Maina from the WHO’s Africa Regional Office points out that farmers have prolonged exposure to toxins in the chemicals used, and exposure to nicotine when picking the tobacco leaf.

“A tobacco farmer who plants, cultivates and harvests tobacco may absorb nicotine equivalent to 50 cigarettes per day,” said Maina.

Tobacco growing and manufacturing also threatens biodiversity and negatively impacts soil health by causing nutrient depletion and soil erosion which results in global deforestation and produces environmental harm such as toxic emissions, greenhouse gases and air pollution.

“Most of the tobacco-growing countries in Africa are suffering from food and nutritional deficiencies. However, most of the fertile and arable land has been put on tobacco growing instead of food production. Diverting prime land away from food production is contributing to world hunger.”

He suggests that countries whose economy relies on tobacco should assist their farmers in switching to alternative crops and other livelihoods that provide them with equivalent or higher returns compared to tobacco with reduced labour and exposure to health and environmental risks.

“Governments should stop providing direct tobacco subsidies to tobacco farming and reallocate these to tobacco control programmes including, where applicable, support to alternative livelihoods to tobacco programmes and agriculture extension services,” he advised.

Meanwhile, Boyden Ndlovu of Mzimba district, one of Malawi’s tobacco-growing districts located in the northern region says that his lifetime has been synonymous with tobacco farming.

Tobacco has been a mainstay of Malawi’s economy, historically generating about 70% of export revenue and now accounting for over half – yet the country finally ratified the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in August this year.

The FCTC, adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2003, is designed to protect present and future generations from the devastating impact of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke by reducing both demand and supply of tobacco.

Article 17 of the Convention requires signatories to promote economically viable alternatives to tobacco.

But Ndlovu, although knowledgeable about crop diversification, swears he will never quit tobacco farming because it’s the only “lucrative crop” in Malawi.

“My parents educated us with proceeds from tobacco farming. I have never had a white-collar job in my life, I’m content being a farmer,” says Ndlovu, who has been a tobacco farmer for 35 years.

He believes tobacco farming has always been very profitable because the prices are in dollars, boasting that the 2022/23 farming year had better prices with an average selling price of $2.35 per kilogram.

At first, Ndlovu explains, he farmed tobacco on all of his 35 hectares, but this has changed over the years due to fluctuating tobacco prices. He now farms tobacco on only eight hectares, growing food crops such as maize, legumes, fruits and vegetables on the rest.

“Many tobacco farmers have moved away from growing tobacco to legumes and other presumably cash crops. Most farmers were discouraged by the global anti-smoking lobbies and erratic profits threatening the industry,” Ndlovu tells Health Policy Watch.

There were a few farmers in the last tobacco growing season, he adds. “I believe this contributed to the few to make more profits. Many farmers who moved away didn’t make much money from legumes. I’m foreseeing an increase in tobacco growers this year.”

But Ndlovu’s tobacco “lucrative” farming is partly supported by the tobacco industry’s contract farming system. Farmers are granted loans by commercial banks that enable them to buy what they need to produce quality tobacco, backed by the tobacco companies’ guarantee that they will buy their tobacco. The loan amounts are deducted at source and farmers are given the remaining amount as their profit.

Dr Lonjezo Masikini-Phiri, a social science lecturer at the University of Bath and an expert on tobacco production in Malawi, observes that Malawi’s tobacco production is heavily influenced by the industry’s multinational companies.

These companies prefer to buy African tobacco as it is cheaper, thus enabling higher profits. In addition, tobacco growing has decreased in the United States and United Kingdom.

Masikini also observes tobacco multinational companies have supported tobacco farmers to grow legumes alongside tobacco – largely to enrich the soil for tobacco, and possibly also to counter the anti-tobacco lobby’s argument that tobacco farming is undermining food production.

“Malawi should look ahead on what the ratification of the FCTC means. The country should use this opportunity to lobby for tobacco-shifting diversity projects or funding so that the farmers are attracted to food crop farming. This however requires a political will to be implemented,” he says.

Production decline

Malawi is one of the top five producers of tobacco in the world. Malawian tobacco is found in blends of nearly every cigarette smoked in industrialised nations including Camel and Marlboro brands, according to the Malawi Investment and Trade Centre.

The main tobacco-growing countries in Africa are Zimbabwe (25.9% of total output), Zambia (16.4%), Tanzania (14.4%), Malawi (13.3%) and Mozambique (12.9%). n.

But Malawi’s Minister of Agriculture, Sam Kawale, told Health Policy Watch that the FCTC is not a threat to the country and that his ministry and the health ministry are working together to find ways to protect the population from tobacco harm and,at the same time, stimulate the economy.

“We have been encouraging farmers to diversify their crop production. This is important, even now that we have climate change. We are encouraging them to grow drought-, pest-, and disease-resistant crops, as well as invest in irrigation,” he said.

Dr Rosemary Hiscock, a research associate at the University of Bath’s Department of Health,  says the amount of land used to grow tobacco in Africa appears to be declining.

Exports by tobacco leaf volume have been in decline since 2018 and export value has mostly been in decline since 2016.

The UN estimates that in 2019, 616 527 tonnes of tobacco leaf was exported from Africa.

But in 2021, 519 121 hectares of land were used to grow tobacco and 564,960 tonnes were grown in Africa. Of this, 550 916 tonnes (98%) were estimated to be exported.

The UN estimates that tobacco production took up less than 1% of land used for crop production in Africa.

Hiscock says Africa’s proportion of global leaf production is estimated to have increased slightly between 2012 and 2021 from 7% to 10%.

“However the increase is related to a decline in the production of tobacco in the rest of the world rather than an increase in production in Africa,” she explains.

Interestingly, farmers do not fear that the FCTC ratification could be Malawi’s economic suicide.

Nixon Lita, CEO of the Tobacco Growers Association of Malawi (TAMA), says farmers believe that Malawi being part of the discussions relating to tobacco through FCTC could offer alternative economic opportunities.

“We encourage farmers to diversify alongside tobacco but unfortunately tobacco production makes a lot of economic sense to farmers unlike most of the alternatives. Ratification does not demand a stop to growing,” he said.

Lita says that TAMA does not have data on tobacco farmers growing food, but notes that farmers usually reduce their tobacco production after a year of unsatisfying prices.

“For example, 2023 good prices are likely to influence an increased production for the 2024 market. Previously, 2011 poor prices led to a slump in the production for the 2012 market,” he says.

“Farmers are attracted to tobacco upon being convinced of getting good profit after production and sales. Other alternative crops have failed to convince them of economic benefits, profitability and market access. There is a global demand for tobacco which Malawian farmers are failing to meet,” Lita stresses.

Malawian Agricultural expert Tamani-Nkhono Mvula says Malawi’s argument remains that if the amount of tobacco is reduced or halted, the livelihood of millions of people and the national economy will be affected.

He notes that, although FCTC has led to a decrease in tobacco consumption in Europe and North America, it is increasing in countries like China.

“It’s the Chinese who are also buying a lot of Malawi’s burley tobacco.”

Nkhono-Mvula states that although farmers are encouraged to grow legumes, they are unlikely to be convinced of the same in the next farming season considering losses made in the last farming year.

He observes that tobacco’s biggest advantage is a well-organised value chain where farmers are guaranteed a market and a good price.

“If someone is growing soya, they are not sure of the market or profit. In such situations, it will be difficult for Malawi to stop growing tobacco as long as the tobacco market is going to be profitable and well structured,” Nkhono-Mvula said.

Vincent Kimosop, a Kenyan-based policy and governance expert, urges the Malawi government to progressively introduce measures to support farmers to adopt viable economic alternatives.

“This has been done in many countries including Brazil and there are lessons that can be borrowed by Malawi,” he observes.

He cites the Kenyan example, where the government has taken steps to enlighten farmers that there is no future in tobacco farming although it is still struggling to find ready market alternatives.

Nkhono-Mvula says that although tobacco is Malawi’s economic backbone, its agricultural land is geared towards maize, the staple crop, followed by cassava and sweet potatoes.

“It’s the estates that may have larger land for tobacco growing and not the smallholder farmers. A tobacco crop in itself doesn’t deplete the soil, but it’s the chemicals used that do. They, in the long run, may affect the soil.

“The use of trees to dry the tobacco also leads to environmental degradation,” Nkhono-Mvula says.

Hiscock suggests improving the supply chain for alternative crops, including building up extension services so farmers can grow other crops efficiently and ensuring there are guaranteed buyers for other crops.

She also suggests “educating farmers to understand that they rarely make long-term profits from tobacco”.

She also recommends tobacco control measures to reduce internal demand for tobacco, such as “tobacco taxes, ‘smoke-free’ buildings, graphic picture warnings on packaging, plain packaging and banning flavoured tobacco products”.

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