This week presents a significant milestone in the history of tobacco farming.
For the first time ever, over 30 million tobacco famers across the world united to mark – but not to celebrate – World Tobacco Growers day on October 29.
The day came amidst uncertainty in the tobacco-growing world over some of the measures being proposed for tobacco control, which seem geared towards suffocating, rather than regulating the industry.
In two weeks’ time, when the fifth Conference of Parties to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC CoP5) meets in South Korea, the fate of these farmers could be sealed – taking away the right to grow the crop that has given them a livelihood for years, and allowed them to contribute towards the economies of their countries.
And the grounds for this? A proposal by WHO, through the FCTC, to encourage governments to put in place policies to migrate tobacco farmers to alternative crops. The target is to discourage and eventually phase out tobacco growing, with the belief that this will culminate in less supply and, therefore, consumption of tobacco products. How realistic is this assumption?
Here in Uganda, it would mean an uncertain future for approximately 75,000 farmers who grow tobacco. These farmers work in 25 districts in Uganda, spread across areas of West Nile, Bunyoro, middle-northern and south-western Uganda.
Some of them have been growing tobacco for years for varied reasons, but most notably, because tobacco grows well in challenging climatic settings and poor soils, provides a ready and relatively consistent market, and gives fairly competitive cash returns compared to many other crops.
Many of them will tell you how their forefathers grew tobacco, making it a generational heritage from which they draw pride and much attachment, despite the challenges they face.
In the bigger picture, the contribution of tobacco growing to Uganda’s economy over the years speaks for itself, with export and tax revenues over 80 years since commercial tobacco varieties were introduced in Uganda.
This is a story that detractors would prefer to shelve to justify the current push for suffocation of the industry. And these are interests that representatives from Uganda should share with their counterparts when they meet at Tobacco Control fora like the CoP5.
We believe the country position should not be decided by one sector but, rather, be borne out of comprehensive and fair public consultation; communicated, vetted and endorsed by key stakeholders, inclusive of the health fraternity.
The issues up for discussion at the CoP5 meeting carry more than just a public health implication for countries that practise tobacco growing. To propose that the ministry of Agriculture comes up with viable alternatives within a 12-month period to replace a crop that has successfully been grown for over 80 years as has been proposed in Uganda’s draft Tobacco Control bill, is to threaten the livelihood of these 75,000 farmers and their dependents.
Has the country tried and tested these alternative crops in these tobacco areas? How sustainable are they as cash crops to replace tobacco? Banning tobacco growing in Uganda will certainly not mean that people will stop smoking!
Instead, the country will be reduced to a net importer of finished tobacco products and thereby give up the export and tax revenues it currently derives from grown tobacco leaf to other countries that have quickly recognized this fact and made an informed decision to take a second thought on the FCTC proposals in the interest of their economies.
The government should be involved in identifying and promoting alternative crops as part of good agricultural practices to tobacco farmers, but should not force farmers out of tobacco growing or deny them support in terms of subsidies and facilitation, simply because they have chosen to grow tobacco.
Tobacco remains a legal crop and product in Uganda and while demand for tobacco products exists, farmers should have the right to make a commercial decision on what to grow.
Besides, some of the social, environmental and economic challenges given as justification for forcing farmers out of tobacco growing are common to the cultivation of other crops: the use of pesticides, fertilizers, deforestation, biodiversity losses, etc.
So, while the public health objective remains unquestionably noble, tobacco control is a complex socio-economic issue that calls for the full involvement of key stakeholders at every stage of policy development and implementation.
The author is Corporate and Regulatory Affairs Manager, British American Tobacco Uganda.