Tobacco cultivation devastates the environment and is a net loss for most smallholder tobacco farmers. Recent research from Indonesia suggests that farmers who stop growing tobacco are significantly better off than their neighbors who still grow it.

All tobacco products start with a simple leaf. The cultivation of tobacco leaf, indigenous to the Americas, dates back at least eight millennia, and tobacco smoking for at least two. In the 15th century, Columbus helped shape the future of the tobacco industry as the first “importer” of tobacco into Europe. Within decades, tobacco had spread globally, including cultivation for commercial purposes. Mechanization of cigarette manufacturing in the 1880s helped grow the market for cigarettes dramatically, increasing demand for tobacco leaf.

While widespread cultivation of tobacco leaf has generated many challenges— including health hazards for farmers, environmental degradation and child labor issues—the most pressing systemic public health challenge is how the industry often uses tobacco farming to undermine tobacco control, arguing that tobacco control destroys the livelihoods of smallholder tobacco farmers. This specious argument—often perpetuated by governments’ economic and/or agribusiness sectors—has resonated widely, undermining tobacco control efforts around the globe. Not coincidentally, tobacco farming has also shifted to some of the world’s lowest-HDI countries, where governments are typically more economically and politically vulnerable.


Recent research across major tobacco-growing countries demonstrates that farming tobacco is not prosperous for most smallholder farmers. Many farmers—including many with contracts with oligopolistic leaf-buying companies—pay too much for inputs (e.g., fertilizer, pesticides, etc.), receive very low prices for their leaf, and dedicate hundreds of hours to a mostly unprofitable economic pursuit. The opportunity costs of farming tobacco are high, with farmers missing out on human capital development and more lucrative economic opportunities.

So why do tobacco farmers grow tobacco? Many farmers report an assured market, even if prices are consistently low. Others report difficulty obtaining credit for other economic activities. For some, it is a way to generate cash in low-cash economies to pay for necessities like education and health care. Yet, the research demonstrates consistently that many tobacco farmers underestimate their costs and overestimate their returns.

Article 17 of the WHO FCTC compels Parties to promote viable alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers. Few governments have made such efforts. There is no panacea for this transition; some countries have tried small programs to introduce new crops—e.g., 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 are growing non-tobacco crops that they have always grown, and are making more money doing so. Governments can help by investing in supply and value chains, finding 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.

Alternative Livelihoods

Indonesia Example

Note: The circles indicate the size of sales of the crops.
Former tobacco farmers are growing more of most other local crops, making more money and spending less time in their fields than farmers continuing to grow tobacco.

Hectares of Tobacco Planted

Crop Yields (Hg/ha)

Tobacco Production


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