Economics vs health: Experts bash tobacco industry

FRANCIS LUNGU, Cape Town, South Africa
THE global tobacco business continues to be characterised by conflicting interests mainly from the public health point of view against that of economic dynamics such as job creation.
From the business side, industry players have propagated the message that tobacco has created millions of jobs across the world, pouring resources into national coffers and generally contributing to respective countries’ gross domestic product (GDP).
On the other hand, there has been a vigorous anti-tobacco campaign in the last decade or so spearheaded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which reveals that tobacco kills seven million people every year.
WHO-FCTC suggests that a huge number of these deaths mostly occur in low and middle-income countries like Zambia and that these areas are targets of intensive tobacco industry marketing, pushing to find new smokers and sustain the old ones.
Although the marketing of tobacco finished products such as cigarettes always bears a warning that ‘tobacco is harmful’, alas, different brands of cigarettes continue to flood the market.
According to WHO, from the world population of seven billion people plus, there are one billion smokers, while millions are second-hand smokers, who unfortunately include children affected through exposure to tobacco-polluted environments.
In justifying the goodness of tobacco, in the case of Zambia, the tobacco industry players say the crop is seven times more profitable per hectare compared to maize production. They also say that tobacco is 14 times more profitable than cotton and is widely recognised as one of the biggest foreign exchange earners.
The Tobacco Board of Zambia (TBZ) estimates that the tobacco sector directly employs around 48,000 people with 288,000 directly benefiting from growing of tobacco and that the entire value chain contributes 450, 000 direct jobs to the Zambian economy.
During the 2016-2017 marketing season, an average of US$69 million was paid to Zambian tobacco farmers for the sale of green tobacco throughout the country, according to TBZ.
However, TBZ indicates that in recent years, the country has seen dwindling tobacco production volumes, falling to 23 million kilogrammes in 2016 from the 42 million recorded in 2013.
In comparison, TBZ notes that Zambia’s annual production levels are far below that of neighbouring Zimbabwe and Malawi, which are around 180 million kilogrammes and 150 million kilogrammes respectively.
“It will require a complete change in the way the business is run…we believe that competitive markets together with enabling legal framework will be key in driving the tobacco production from the current projection of 26 million kilogrammes in the 2017-2018 agriculture season to 40 million and more by 2021,” TBZ chief executive officer James Kasongo said.
But Tobacco Free Association of Zambia executive director Brenda Chitindi says tobacco production should be discouraged at all cost to prevent 3,300 deaths caused by tobacco-related ailments every year and to also stop more than 56,000 children and 105,200 adults who continue to use tobacco each day in Zambia.
“No life should be lost because of tobacco and the three percent claimed tobacco contribution to the country’s GDP is too minimal to cause any death,” said Ms Chitindi.
In fortifying the anti-tobacco stance, University of Zambia (UNZA) School of Medicine professor of physiology and cardiovascular health, Fastone Goma, says tobacco is the most toxic crop that is grown, processed and used legally.
Prof Goma, who is also attached to the Centre for Primary Care Research, says it has been scientifically proven that tobacco use causes more than 100 diseases and at least 12 cancers, and that it is the only product which, when used as intended, kills half to two-thirds of its consumers.
On the economic benefits of tobacco, Prof Goma says rather than the three percent claimed by the tobacco industry as being the contribution to the country’s GDP, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation finds that, in 2015, tobacco contributed only 0.4 percent.
“ Other studies find that the number of smallholder farmers in Zambia growing tobacco is around 10,000 – not the 48,000 cited, and certainly not the ‘450,000 direct jobs’ in the Zambian economy that the industry claims,” he stated in a statement.
According to the findings by the Centre for Primary Care Research on tobacco farming profitability, Prof Goma says, it was established that most smallholder tobacco farmers either make very little in profit or end each growing year in debt to the leaf-buying companies that supply them on credit with inputs at the start of the season.
“Tobacco is a very labour-intensive crop. All smallholder tobacco farmers actually lose money. These losses do not include the costs Zambia suffers in environmental damages due to deforestation, herbicide and pesticide pollution, and soil destruction; or the direct cost of ‘green leaf’ disease from tobacco harvesting or the many diseases (notably cancers, respiratory, and heart diseases) that tobacco consumers develop,” he stated.
Zambia has ratified the WHO-FCTC, which is an international and binding legal treaty that obliges the 181 member countries not to provide any incentives to tobacco companies such as tax exemptions, and the treaty commits governments to assist tobacco farmers in diversifying their cash-paying crops.
“It does not make sense for Zambia to develop its economy by expanding tobacco production and consumption of a product that kills a majority of the people who use it, while its peasant farmers continue to live in poverty that appears to be getting worse rather than better as a result of growing tobacco,” said Prof Goma.
Furthermore, the recent 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health themed “Uniting the world for a tobacco-free generation”, held in Cape Town, South Africa, from March 7-9, 2018 called upon governments for renewed focus on the tobacco control policies that are proven to help smokers quit, and to prevent them from becoming addicted.
At the conference, the WHO-FCTC explicitly stated that the profit-making interests of the tobacco industry were fundamentally irreconcilable with the interests of public health.
“Tobacco use damages not just health, but also economies, environments, education and equity – it is a barrier to sustainable development on all fronts. Now is the time for leaders to implement strong policies proven to protect their citizens from tobacco,” said WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
And South African health minister Aaron Motsoaledi said tobacco is more destructive not only to people’s health, but even to developing economies especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Use of tobacco has no benefits whatsoever. The companies involved are just focused on profit-making. It is like they are telling us that ‘please allow us to poison you and we will give you jobs’, but I ask them whether they are creating jobs for corpses because tobacco is killing our people,” Dr Motsoaledi said.
Meanwhile WHO global ambassador for non-communicable diseases Michael Bloomberg, who is former mayor for New York and also founder of New York-based Bloomberg Philanthropies, provided a US$20 million funding to launch Stopping Tobacco Organisations and Products (STOP), a new global watchdog on tobacco.
More than 2,000 delegates from around the world who included researchers, scientists, United Nations officials, civil society representatives, health care professionals, policy makers and the media, gathered at the triennial anti-tobacco conference which was taking place in Africa for the first time in its 50 years of existence.

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