Grow Food and Not Tobacco; WHO

With hunger spreading worldwide and tobacco responsible for eight million deaths each year, countries should stop subsidizing tobacco crops and help farmers grow food, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

Ahead of World No Tobacco Day on Wednesday 31 May, WHO deplored that 3.2 million hectares of fertile land across 124 countries are being used to grow tobacco – even in places where people are starving.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that governments across the world “spend millions supporting tobacco farms”. He mentioned that choosing to grow food instead of it would allow the world to “prioritize health, preserve ecosystems, and strengthen food security for all”.


In its new report, “Grow food, not tobacco”, the WHO states that a record 349 million people are facing acute food insecurity, many of them in some 30 countries on the African continent, where the leafy cultivation has increased by 15 per cent in the last decade.


The report also exposes such industry for trapping farmers in a vicious cycle of dependence and exaggerating the economic benefits of tobacco as a cash crop.

WHO’s Director for Health Promotion Dr. Rüdiger Krech warned that cigarette’s economic importance is a “myth that we urgently need to dispel”. The crop contributes less than one per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in most leaf -growing countries, he said.

The profits went to the world’s major cigarette-makers, while farmers struggle under the burden of debt contracted with the companies, he added.


Brazil, China and India account for over 55% of global production. The other countries in the top 10 are Indonesia, Malawi, Mozambique, Türkiye, United Republic of Tanzania, United States of America and Zimbabwe.

The report also mentioned that growing of the stuff decreased over time in high-income countries. As such, companies increasingly targeted African countries to scale-up leaf production. From 2005 to 2020, the area under cultivation decreased globally by 15.8%, while in Africa it increased by 19.8%. East Africa accounts for 88.5% of leaf production in Africa, while northern African countries in the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region have little or no role in production, though they have significant trade volumes in the import of leaf and/or cigarettes.


In the report, the WHO points out that green tobacco sickness affects one in four tobacco farmers. Many farmers are not aware of, or cannot afford, appropriate protective equipment to prevent the disease, such as water-resistant clothing, chemical-resistant gloves or rain suits with boots.

It said that a farmer, who plants, cultivates and harvests tobacco may absorb nicotine equivalent to 50 cigarettes per day. Additionally, these farmers often carry harmful substances home on their bodies, clothes or shoes, leading to harmful secondary exposure for their families, especially children.  The farmers also inhale large amounts of tobacco smoke during the curing process, which increases the risk of chronic lung conditions and other health issues. Women and children are often the primary tobacco farm labourers and are therefore more exposed to the health risks of handling green leaves and heavy.

Children are particularly vulnerable, given their body weight relative to the proportion of nicotine absorbed through their skin. The harmful effects of tobacco farming affect pregnant women more and they face a higher risk of miscarriage.

Dr. Krech explained that the farmers find themselves exposed to nicotine poisoning and dangerous pesticides. The broader impact on communities and whole societies is devastating, as some 1.3 million child labourers are estimated to be working on tobacco farms instead of going to school, he said.

“The message to smokers is, think twice”, Dr. Krech said, as consuming tobacco came down to supporting an iniquitous situation in which farmers and their families were suffering


The WHO report states that tobacco farming accounted for about five per cent of total deforestation. Approximately 2,00,000 hectares of land are cleared for tobacco agriculture and curing each year. Tobacco growing contributes to loss of biodiversity and destroys the ecosystem. It is also associated with land degradation or desertification in the form of soil erosion, reduced soil fertility and productivity, and the disruption of water cycles. Leaching of chemicals into nearby water sources kills fish and affects other humans and animals, including cattle, that access these waters for domestic use and drinking.


WHO, along with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) have joined forces around the Tobacco Free Farms initiative, to help thousands of farmers in countries like Kenya and Zambia to grow sustainable food crops instead of tobacco.

The programme provides farmers with microcredit lending to pay off their debts with tobacco companies, as well as knowledge and training to grow alternative crops, and a market for their harvest, thanks to WFP’s local procurement initiatives.


  • Governments should stop providing direct tobacco subsidies to tobacco farming and reallocate for its control programmes
  • Governments should dismantle tobacco boards and not promote tobacco growing, or repurpose these boards to support alternative livelihood programmes.
  • Governments should explore a multisectoral approach and develop viable alternatives to the leaves growing. This includes agricultural support, engaging communities/farmer cooperatives and facilitating access by farmers to local and national markets for alternative livelihoods such as food crops.
  • Parties to the WHO FCTC should leverage their commitment to supporting such farmers in switching to alternative, sustainable livelihoods
  • Governments should hold the industry accountable for the risks posed to the environment and the adverse health effects of tobacco growing and manufacture, and impose costs.
  • Governments should recognize tobacco industry’s tactics when it comes to support farmers
  • Awareness needed among farming communities and farmer cooperatives about the harms of tobacco growing for their health and the environment.


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