Africa: COP 10 – Tobacco Growers’ Share Concerns Over WHO Decisions

A large group of premium tobacco producers and workers from a few tobacco growers’ countries, Colombia, Panama, Honduras and Nicaragua, have protested on February 5th in front of the Panama Convention Centre where the tenth Conference of the Parties (COP) of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), is currently taking place.

The FCTC aims at protecting present and future generations from the impact of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke by reducing both demand and supply of tobacco. Article 17 of the Convention requires parties to promote economically viable alternatives to tobacco. It states that “Parties shall, in cooperation with each other and with competent international and regional intergovernmental organizations, promote, as appropriate, economically viable alternatives for tobacco workers, growers and, as the case may be, individual sellers.”

At the protest, farmers denounced the “exclusion” and the “lack of transparency” in the WHO’s decisions about tobacco growing measures. They demand “respect for a tradition that dates back more than 500 years”.

They have also called for «common sense” to find viable solutions and consensus regarding the policies without risking millions of families’ livelihoods.

“The cultural influence of premium cigar production goes beyond the process. It is an integral part of our family and community values, as well as our legacy and our own history,” they alerted.

The concerns are also shared among tobacco growers in Africa

In Malawi, tobacco growing has been a backbone of the economy, historically generating about 70% of export revenue– yet the country finally ratified WHO’s FCTC in August 2023.

Growers in Malawi fear that the FCTC ratification could be Malawi’s economic suicide. However, they hope that Malawi being part of the discussions will offer viable economic solutions as the livelihood of millions of families and domestic economy will be impacted if tobacco production is terminated,

Mr. N. Lita, CEO of the Tobacco Growers Association of Malawi (TAMA), told Health Policy Watch (an independent global health reporting organization) in November 2023, that they encourage farmers to diversify alongside tobacco however 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.

Most farmers that have been encouraged to try other crops for one farming season are likely to return to tobacco growing the next farming season because of the loss of profitability they would have experienced the past season.

It is difficult to abandon tobacco growing because this is a very well-organized market, with a guaranteed marketplace and price compared to other crops which profits are unstable. The perception of a ready market for the leaf (farmers know they have a buyer) makes the farmers remain loyal to the crop.

Malawi is one of the top five producers of tobacco in the world. Malawian leaf is found in blends of almost every cigarette smoked in high-income countries.

East Africa alone accounts for 90.43% of tobacco leaf production in Africa. The member states of the WHO African Region account for 18.2% of the global area under tobacco cultivation and 11.4% of tobacco leaf growing in the world. The five top tobacco growing countries are: Zimbabwe (25.9% of total output), Zambia (16.4%), United Republic of Tanzania (14.4%), Malawi (13.3%) and Mozambique (12.9%).7 Other countries have small tobacco growing areas, usually for local consumption.

Diversification, a challenging compromise

“Grow Food, Not Tobacco” – was the 2023 WHO’s World No Tobacco Day Theme. There is growing recognition that diversifying away from tobacco farming can contribute to progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals in lower- and middle-income countries. However, diversification projects are often limited in scope and impact because structural barriers to tobacco diversification make it easier to challenge them.