Bangkok, Thailand (1 May 2023) – In celebration of Earth Day (23 April) and the upcoming World No Tobacco Day (31 May), which focuses on the theme, “Food, not tobacco”, the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance reiterates its call for governments to support tobacco farmers to transition to growing food crops for a healthier, more sustainable society.
Tobacco cultivation and leaf curing involves land clearing and tree cutting, which contributes 5% of global deforestation, and strips the land of essential soil nutrients much more than other crops. Tobacco growing is also dependent on chemical pesticides that poison the soil and water reservoirs. Farmlands dedicated to tobacco are also a lost opportunity for growing food crops.
Contrary to tobacco industry claims, tobacco farming is not a profitable venture for smallholder farmers. Smallholder tobacco farmers often find themselves trapped in poverty as leaf prices are typically low and dictated by the large, multinational tobacco-buying companies. Moreover, tobacco farmers are often locked into unfair loan contracts with tobacco companies, leaving farmers with negative net incomes instead of profits. Tobacco is also highly labor-intensive, requiring farmers and their spouses and children to dedicate long hours to tend to tobacco crops, rendering them unable to dedicate time to other important economic or personal pursuits.
In Indonesia, a World Bank study found that tobacco farmers were investing more money on tobacco cultivation than the income they derive from it. Former tobacco farmers found that food crops such as corn, green vegetables, and sweet potato are more profitable to grow than tobacco.
Tobacco farmers and their families also often struggle to have enough food to eat due to their insufficient income from tobacco farming. In the Philippines, during the COVID-19 pandemic, tobacco farmers were given vegetable seed packs to support food sufficiency and provide additional income from these more profitable and in-demand crops.
Shifting to growing food crops offers numerous benefits to farmers beyond providing greater food security and increased income. It is much less labor intensive and protects them from exposure to chemical pesticides and the risk of green tobacco sickness, a form of nicotine poisoning, which causes nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, weakness, among others.
Tobacco is an obstacle to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 1, which envisions ending poverty in all forms everywhere, tobacco farmers included; Goal 2, which aims to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture; and Goal 3, which aims to ensure good health and well-being for all. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) also requires Parties to implement economically viable alternatives for tobacco farmers and to protect the health of the people and the environment.
“People everywhere need food to be healthy and productive, not tobacco, which harms both people and the planet. Valuable agricultural spaces should be dedicated to growing food, not tobacco. We strongly recommend that governments develop and implement policies that will empower tobacco farmers to stop growing tobacco and instead pursue growing crops that promote health and generate more income,” explained SEATCA Executive Director, Dr Ulysses Dorotheo.
Because the tobacco industry whitewashes its harmful business through fake corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, such as tree planting, governments should ban all tobacco-related CSR activities. Subsidies for growing tobacco should also be ended and instead prioritize land use towards food agriculture and environmental protection.
Val Bugnot, Media and Communications Manager, SEATCA
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SEATCA is a multi-sectoral non-governmental alliance promoting health and saving lives by assisting ASEAN countries to accelerate and effectively implement the tobacco control measures contained in the WHO FCTC. Acknowledged by governments, academic institutions, and civil society for its advancement of tobacco control in Southeast Asia, the WHO bestowed on SEATCA the World No Tobacco Day Award in 2004 and the WHO Director-General’s Special Recognition Award in 2014.