31 May 2023
Tobacco use continues to pose a significant public health challenge globally. Every year, it is responsible for over 8 million deaths worldwide and over half a million deaths in the ASEAN region alone. Yet, fertile lands are diverted to support the production of a crop that causes illnesses and premature deaths, erodes economy and destroys the environment.
The 2023 World No Tobacco Day theme “Grow Food, Not Tobacco,” aims to raise awareness of the harmful effects of tobacco growing on farmers and their families, the planet and food security.
Tobacco farmers are exposed to a number of health risks, including “Green Tobacco Sickness”, which is caused by nicotine absorbed through the skin from the handling of wet tobacco leaves, exposure to heavy use of pesticides, and exposure to tobacco dust.2 Tobacco growing is labour-intensive, associated with child labour and gender inequality, and keeps tobacco farmers and their families trapped in a cycle of debt. 2 The environment also suffers greatly due to deforestation, contamination of water sources and degradation of soil.
Many countries in the world face severe food insecurity, mainly low and middle-income countries (LMICs). In the ASEAN region, more than 60 million people still suffer from undernourishment. The agricultural lands used for tobacco farming could be utilized instead for food production, contributing to addressing food insecurity and nutrition challenges. For example, in 2019, the ASEAN region used over 324,575 hectares of land for tobacco farming, which could have produced an estimated 38,324 tonnes of vegetables, enough to provide the recommended minimum vegetable intake per day for over 250,000 people annually.
Experiences from many countries, have demonstrated that tobacco growers can shift away from tobacco to economically viable and sustainable alternative crops such as vegetables and other food crops, with the proper government support and intervention.
On this World No Tobacco Day, commitments to sustainable development can include:Supporting tobacco farmers to switch to more profitable, sustainable, and healthy food crops and thereby improve security and nutrition for the nation;Ending subsidies on tobacco growing as part of governments’ commitment to tobacco control;
Raising awareness in tobacco farming communities about the harms of tobacco growing and the benefits of moving away from tobacco toward growing sustainable crops;Supporting efforts to combat environmental degradation by phasing out tobacco farming; and,Exposing and preventing industry efforts to promote tobacco farming and keep farmers in debt.
Together, the ASEAN Member States are already moving toward a smoke-free ASEAN, to protect their population, and promote healthy lifestyle and a healthy ASEAN.Together, the ASEAN Member States have an opportunity to enhance regional prosperity despite the challenges facing the region, by staying committed to protecting public health from the detriments of tobacco.
The ASEAN Health Sector through the ASEAN Health Cluster 1 on Promoting Healthy Lifestyle reaffirms its commitment in the implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the conduct of demand reduction measures, and supporting ASEAN Member States in protecting tobacco control policies from tobacco industry interference and involvement in control programmes. These are realized through scaled-up initiatives of ASEAN Health Cluster 1 through its Work Programme 2021-2025.
Today also marks the start of the call for nominations for the ASEAN Smoke-Free Awards (ASA) recognizing cities, municipalities, provinces or states of each ASEAN Member State that will earn the ‘smoke-free’ status based on a Smoke-free Rating System which is backed by the seven principles of Article 8 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and developed using the best practices and experiences of local governments of countries in the ASEAN.
Together, we have an opportunity to enhance regional prosperity despite the challenges we are facing by staying committed to protecting public health from the detriments of tobacco.
We are already moving toward a ‘Smoke-free ASEAN’, to protect the populations and promote healthy lifestyles towards a healthy ASEAN.