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Farmers have grown tobacco for more than eight thousand years. Indigenous to the Americas, tobacco’s global spread increased enormously when Columbus took it home to Europe in the 15th century. In the late 19th century, the mechanization of cigarette manufacturing and corresponding aggressive marketing efforts by cigarette companies helped to grow this market exponentially, greatly increasing demand for tobacco leaf.

There are many unequivocally negative effects from growing tobacco, including environmental damage (e.g., deforestation, watershed damage, etc.), impoverishment of and health harms to farmers and farm workers, and the use of child labor, among others. Arguably, what is most harmful to public health, however, is the industry’s often-successful attempts to undermine tobacco control efforts by employing a narrative of tobacco farmers’ prosperity. We have seen this all around the world, but it is most glaring in lower-income countries, where governments—often economically and/or politically vulnerable—slow, stop, or even reverse tobacco control efforts because of this alleged economic harm to tobacco farmers and others in the industry.

Recent research across the globe demonstrates that most smallholder tobacco farmers struggle economically (e.g., Argentina, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi, the Philippines, and Zambia). Leaf prices are typically very low and mainly controlled by only a few large, multinational tobacco-buying companies. At the same time, many farmers pay above-market prices for their key inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides because they contract with leaf companies; these arrangements strongly favor the buyers. Finally, because tobacco is an exceptionally labor-intensive crop, the opportunity costs of tobacco farming work are high. Research demonstrates that by dedicating so many hours to tobacco production many farmers miss out on economic opportunities and/or human capital development, such as investing time in other economic pursuits and/or their education.

The question that many reasonably ask is: why then do farmers grow tobacco? Many farmers are attracted to the more assured market, particularly under contracts between farmers and leaf-buying companies. They agree to contract knowing that prices are likely to be low, but many farmers also report that credit is scarce, which prevents them from pursuing other economic opportunities. In low-cash economies, tobacco farming can generate cash to pay for necessities like education and health care. In other countries (e.g., Argentina and North Macedonia) farmers seek government subsidies for tobacco, which is counter to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Yet, the research consistently demonstrates that many farmers overestimate what they make from tobacco and how much it costs to produce it.

The FCTC compels Parties to promote viable alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers, but few governments have made serious efforts. There is no panacea for this transition. Some countries have tried small programs to introduce new crops, such as bamboo in Kenya (with mixed results). Some farmers switch to and from tobacco, based on hopes for high leaf prices. The most successful larger-scale examples of change rely more on existing skills and experience. In Indonesia, former tobacco farmers growing local non-tobacco crops are consistently making more money than they did growing tobacco. Governments can help by investing in supply and value chains, including helping farmers find new markets for these other products, and divesting from any participation in tobacco cultivation. They can also re-invest vigorously in education and skills development, both agricultural and non-agricultural, in tobacco-growing regions.



Lencucha R, Drope J, Magati P, Sahadewo GA. 2022. Tobacco farming: Overcoming an understated impediment to comprehensive tobacco control. Tobacco Control.

Country-level farming studies:

Chavez JJ, Drope J, Li Q, Aloria MJ. 2016. The Economics of Tobacco Farming in the Philippines. Quezon City: Action for Economic Reforms and Atlanta: American Cancer Society.

Drope J, Li Q, Araujo E, Harimurti P, Sahadewo G, Nargis N, Durazo J, Witoelar F, Sikoki B. The Economics of Tobacco Farming in Indonesia. Indonesia Tobacco Employment Studies. Washington DC: World Bank. October 2017.

Ghulam Hussain AKM, Rouf A, Shimul S, Nargis N, Kessaram TM, Mahfuzul Huq S, Kaur J, Shiekh MKA, Drope J. 2020. The Economic Cost of Tobacco Farming in Bangladesh. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17, 24 (9447);

Goma F, Drope J, Zulu R, Li Q, Banda J. The Economics of Tobacco Farming in Zambia. Lusaka: University of Zambia School of Medicine and Atlanta: American Cancer Society. December, 2015.

Kagaruki L. Alternative crops to tobacco: a gateway for tobacco farmers Ruvuma region, southern Tanzania. Tobacco Induced Diseases. 2018;16(1):A948. doi:10.18332/tid/84721.

Magati P, Hecock D, Li Q, Drope J. 2022. The Economics of Tobacco Farming in Kenya: A Longitudinal Study. International Institute for International Affairs and Tobacconomics.

Magati M, Lencucha R, Li Q, Drope J, Labonté R, Appau A, Makoka D, Goma F, Zulu R. 2018. Costs, Contracts and the Narrative of Prosperity: An Economic Analysis of Smallholder Tobacco Farming Livelihoods in Kenya. Tobacco Control.

Magati P, Li Q, Drope J, Lencucha R, Labonté R. 2016. The Economics of Tobacco Farming in Kenya. Nairobi: International Institute for Legislative Affairs and Atlanta: American Cancer Society.

Makoka D, Appau A, Lencucha R, Drope J. 2016. Farm-Level Economics of Tobacco Production in Malawi. Lilongwe: Centre for Agricultural Research and Development and Atlanta: American Cancer Society.

Makoka D, Drope J, Appau A, Labonté R, Li Q, Goma F, Zulu R, Magati P, Lencucha R. 2016. Costs, revenues and profits: An economic analysis of smallholder tobacco farmer livelihoods in Malawi. Tobacco Control 26, 6:634-640

Mijovic Hristovska, B., Mijovic Spasova, T., Trpkova-Nestorovska, M., Tashevska, B., Trenovski, B., & Kozeski, K. (2021). The Economics of Tobacco Subsidies in North Macedonia [Policy Brief]. Analytica.

Nguenha N, Cunguara B, Bialous S, Drope J, Lencucha R. 2020. An overview of the policy and market landscape of tobacco production and control in Mozambique. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Sahadewo G, Drope J, Li Q, Nargis N, Witoelar F. 2020. Tobacco or Not Tobacco: Predicting Farmers Income in Indonesia. Tobacco Control.

Sahadewo, G.A., Drope, J., Witoelar, F., Li, Q., & Lencucha, R. (2021). The Economics of Tobacco Farming in Indonesia: Results from Two Waves of a Farm-Level Survey [Report].

Sahadewo, G.A., Drope, J., Witoelar, F., Li, Q., & Lencucha, R. (2021). The Economics of Tobacco Farming in Indonesia: 3rd Wave Tobacco Farmers Survey [Report]. Tobacconomics.

Talukder A, Haq I,Ali M, Drope J. 2020. Factors Associated with Cultivation of Tobacco in Bangladesh: A Multilevel Modelling Approach. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 17(12), 4277;

Growing map data:

Food and Agriculture Organization (United Nations). Tobacco Production.

Alternatives to tobacco growing:

Clark M, Magati P, Drope J, Labonte R, Lencucha R. 2020. Understanding Alternatives to Tobacco Production in Kenya: A Qualitative Analysis at the Sub-National Level. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Lencucha R, Moyo T, Drope J, Labonté R, Appau A, Makoka D. 2020. A meaningful shift to alternatives to tobacco growing in Malawi? A qualitative analysis of policy and perspectives. Health Policy and Planning.

Li Q, Magati P, Lencucha R, Labonte R, Makoka D, Drope J. 2019. Understanding Tobacco Farmers’ Livelihood Decisions. Nicotine and Tobacco Research. Doi: 10.1092/ntr/ntz011. PubMed PMID: 30690496.

Li V, Wang Q, Xia N, Tang S, Wang C. 2012. Tobacco Crop Substitution: Pilot Effort in China. American Journal of Public health 102, 9: 1660-63.

Sahadewo GA, Drope J, Li Q, Witoelar F, Lencucha R. 2020. In-and-Out of Tobacco: Shifting Behavior of Tobacco Farmers in Indonesia. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 17,24 (9416);

Why farmers grow tobacco:

Appau A, Drope J, Goma F, Magati P, Labonte R, Makoka M, Zulu R, Li Q, Lencucha R. 2019. Why Farmers Grow Tobacco: Evidence from Malawi, Kenya and Zambia. Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

Appau A, Drope J, Witoelar F, Chavez JJ, Lencucha R. 2019. Why do farmers grow tobacco? A Qualitative Exploration of Farmers Perspectives in Indonesia and Philippines. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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