The future livelihoods of tobacco farmers matter. Seeking out and securing market-based alternatives is of vital importance. 

Supporting tobacco farmers find alternative livelihoods is both necessary and proper. As demand for tobacco products among wealthier countries declines, and as measures to roll-back tobacco consumption in the developing world take effect, farming communities must have the tools needed to secure their future.

This is especially so in the WHO South-East Asia Region. Ten of the Region’s 11 countries are Parties to WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Each one of them is taking meaningful, evidence-based steps to slash tobacco consumption and demand, which at present kills around 1.3 million people in the Region every year. And each one of them is looking for ways to shore-up the economy, avoid tobacco-related costs and fast-track development in an age of unrivalled opportunity.

Though it is true that tobacco farming accounts for a negligible percentage of GDP in the Region’s tobacco-growing countries, and though it is also true that tobacco farming is a driver of biodiversity loss and the depletion of soil nutrients, the concerns of tobacco farmers themselves are important. Their future livelihoods matter.

As outlined in Article 17 of the FCTC, economic viability must be at the very core of efforts to find alternative livelihoods and plan for a tobacco-free world. While promoting such alternatives will help tobacco farmers diversify their income as demand for tobacco ebbs, it may also alert them to more lucrative crops or other livelihood options before this happens. Not only would this leave them better off financially, but it would also free them of the onerous, anti-market contracts so beloved of tobacco oligarchs.

To make this happen, governments and local authorities can take a number of proactive steps.

First, appropriate research on market opportunities should be pursued. This research should take into account the many variables that affect a community’s ability to prosper, including the natural, human, physical and financial capital that a community can access, as well as the market linkages they are able to tap in to. Through the production and dissemination of high-quality information, tobacco farmers can make decisions that harness market forces to their advantage and best reflect their interests.

Second, adequate human, material and financial resources should be made available. This includes providing training that gives the skills needed for tobacco farmers to diversify their crops and income, while also emphasizing tobacco’s harmful environmental and health outcomes for consumers and farmers alike. Authorities should consider creating incentives for promoting, supporting or shifting to alternate livelihoods, including by facilitating access to rural credit, crop and income insurance, and infrastructure and services among other possibilities.

Third, obstacles to crop diversification should be mitigated or removed. Where appropriate, this could include addressing key concerns that prevent farmers leaving tobacco cultivation, such as tobacco-related debts. Despite a farmer’s best intentions, excessive debts written in to supply contracts often leave them tied to tobacco farming, limiting their ability to diversify their income and creating a vicious circle of indebtedness and poverty. Government programs must meet and overcome such challenges.

Finally, industry strategies to promote tobacco farming must be identified and regulated. Policies should be developed to protect tobacco growers and workers from industry practices that fix prices or create conditions that are disadvantageous. This means raising awareness among tobacco farmers so that they can increase their autonomy, as well as creating a network of civil society organizations able to monitor industry malpractice. It also means creating government mechanisms that can do the same, only with the full weight of the law.

By discussing these and other initiatives at the COP7 meeting in New Delhi this week, health authorities and governments across the South-East Asia Region – and indeed the world – will explore how best they can support tobacco farmers as demand-targeted initiatives make their mark. Though this is already happening in several countries in the Region, there is scope for assistance to be scaled up. WHO is pleased to facilitate this process and emphasizes the ongoing need to work with tobacco-growing communities while circumventing the vested interests of the tobacco industry. No matter the half-truths circulated, a tobacco-free world is one of opportunity rather than loss.

This point deserves emphasis. Through the FCTC countries across the globe have gained the legal and technical support they need to resist Big Tobacco’s incursions. They are now making the changes needed to support healthier populations and to lower the social and economic burden of tobacco-related illness and death. Alongside the clear benefits these changes bring, they also provide opportunities for present-day tobacco farmers to diversify their income and breakout from an industry in terminal decline. The notion that a tobacco-free world should come at their expense is an untruth. And it is an untruth that is cynical in the extreme.

Contributed by 

DR Poonam K Singh,

Regional Director WHO South-East Asia Region