Contrary to tobacco industry claims, research from multiple regions demonstrates that tobacco cultivation does not provide a prosperous livelihood for most smallholder farmers. Rather, farmers in tobacco-growing areas would be better off growing other local crops or engaging in other economic activities. Governments can nudge farmers to shift away from tobacco production by investing in improved supply and value chains, providing agricultural extension services for non-tobacco crops, and helping farmers secure credit to pursue other economic opportunities.
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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.
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