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Why getting farmers to switch from tobacco crops is a struggle

Crop diversification in the world’s top tobacco producers can lower smoking rates in low-income countries, but infrastructure limitations and industry subsidies make it a hard pitch to sell to farmers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Ninety per cent of tobacco is grown within low and middle income countries (LMICs), where four in five smokers live, the WHO outlined in a new report released on Tuesday. More than 40 per cent of the world’s tobacco is produced in China alone, while Brazil, Argentina, Bangladesh, Malawi and Zimbabwe are among the other top producers. About half of all smokers live in either Southeast Asia or the Western Pacific region, the WHO said.

Tobacco kills up to half of its users, resulting in 6 million deaths a year, according to WHO data. More than 5 million of those are the result of direct tobacco use while over 600 000 are non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.

“There is a consensus that helping small farmers switch from tobacco to alternative crops can be a useful part of sustainable local economic development programmes and can help overcome barriers to adopting and implementing strong tobacco control policies.”

However, there remain several obstacles to replacing tobacco farms.

“The global trend toward reducing or eliminating tobacco subsidies and price supports in high-income countries (HICs) has significantly affected international production and trade patterns. Production has dropped in the U.S. and Canada that have phased out price supports and traditional producing members of the European Union, such as Greece and Italy,” the report said.

As a result of declining production of good quality leaves in HICs, producers in LMICs have improved the quality of leaf they grow and have received increased farm gate prices.

“Recent trends in the organisation of the tobacco leaf production and marketing chain, including use of integrated production systems, has expanded these multinational corporations’ control over price and other factors while making farmers increasingly dependent.”

The labour-intensive process of tobacco farming provides income to millions of families in producing countries. Once growing and manufacturing are finished in LMICs, the higher phases of the value chain then move to multinational tobacco companies that are largely based in high-income countries, the report explained.

State subsidies for the tobacco-growing sector within LMICs are also high, unlike in HICs where assistance is reduced or eliminated.

But perhaps the biggest hindrance to crop substitution is geography.

Many of the substitute crops that can be as profitable as tobacco, including sweet potatoes and zucchini, require investments in infrastructure, and tend to be highly specific to a country, the WHO report said.

“Tobacco is an expensive crop to grow, but so too are most high-value alternative crops. Building new, and hopefully better, support systems for other crops is a clear challenge for diversification programmes. It will take time for these systems to emerge, and any successful transition from tobacco will likely be a gradual process.”

The WHO found higher taxes and prices on tobacco products remain the single most consistent means to reduce global tobacco use. But tax administration can be challenging for LMICs with limited resources, it added.

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