World No Tobacco Day: Tobacco farming adding to global food crisis, says WHO

Growing sustainable crops can help address acute global food insecurity, governments urged to stop tobacco farming subsidies

By Nandita Banerji
Published: Wednesday 31 May 2023
The tobacco industry interferes with attempts to substitute tobacco growing, contributing to the global food crisis, said the WHO. Photo: iStock

The world needs to grow more food and less tobacco, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a new report, pointing out 349 million people around the world are facing acute food insecurity. Tobacco farming is taking up millions of acres of fertile land that can help feed these people, it said. 

The tobacco industry is interfering with attempts to substitute its growing, contributing to the global food crisis, it further said. Tobacco growing harms the health of people, farmers and even the planet’s health, the WHO said in a report, World No Tobacco Day 2023 released May 25, 2023. 

Read more: Tobacco hurts more than just your lungs – it damages the communities that grow it

The world is confronted with a global food crisis fueled by conflict, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, the global health body said. Meanwhile, tobacco is grown in over 124 countries, taking up valuable farming land that can address nutrition challenges and help feed families instead.

The WHO campaign encouraged governments to end tobacco growing subsidies and use the savings to support farmers to switch to more sustainable crops that improve food security and nutrition. It also aimed to raise awareness about moving away from growing tobacco and growing sustainable crops instead. 

World No Tobacco Day is recognised on May 31 every year.

This time, it marks 20 years of member states unanimously adopting the first public health treaty negotiated under the WHO Constitution — the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, also called WHO-FCTC. This treaty is the first international agreement to reduce tobacco consumption and its devastating health effects.

Tobacco is one of the biggest public health threats the world is facing, Tedros Ghebreyesus, director general of WHO said in a tweet. The world is still benefiting from the impacts of this historic decision. 

The report said 79 countries are facing acute food insecurity. The majority are low- and middle-income countries and over 30 are on the African continent.

Globally, 45 countries, including 33 in Africa, nine in Asia, two in Latin America and the Caribbean and one in Europe, require external assistance for food, United Nations agency Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had found

Read more: India to be the only south-east Asian country to achieve smoking reduction target by 2025

A recent United Nations early warning report also warned of increasing acute food insecurity in several parts of the worldAcute food insecurity can potentially increase in magnitude and severity for 18 areas in 22 countries, FAO and the World Food Programme said.

Tobacco growing compounds the food security issues faced by these countries, the WHO said. Scarce arable land is not being used to grow much-needed food crops and forests are also being destroyed to create room for tobacco production, as well as to provide the fuel needed for curing the leaves.

The WHO report further pointed out the serious health impacts on tobacco farmers due to the heavy use of pesticides and high absorption of nicotine through the skin due to its farming. 

Growing tobacco is also not profitable for many farmers, the global health body said.

The industry exaggerates its economic importance; tobacco farmers often find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of debt as a result of unfair contractual agreements with the industry and face difficulties in shifting away from the nicotine plant. 

Tobacco farmers are exposed to a number of health risks, including green tobacco sickness, a form of occupational poisoning 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, the report pointed out.

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The environment also suffers greatly owing to deforestation, contamination of water sources and degradation of soil, the WHO added. Tobacco smoke emanating from curing tobacco leaves pollutes the environment. 

Growing the nicotine plant is also associated with child labour and gender inequality. Because growing tobacco is labour-intensive and tobacco takes up to eight to nine months to mature, it is difficult for tobacco farmers to grow other crops, including food crops, within the same year, the report added.  

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