In late November of 2019, Zambia’s finance minister, Bwalya Ng’andu, helped to officially inaugurate a new cigarette factory in the Multi Facility Economic Zone in the south of the nation’s capital, Lusaka. Mr. Ng’andu noted that it was the kind of investment that Zambia was seeking because it boosts revenue. Unfortunately, this viewpoint is incredibly shortsighted. For the roughly 75 jobs this will bring to Zambia, the well-documented cost of tobacco use annually in Zambia is much, much higher. In fact, a recent study led by the United Nations Development Programme and the Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control instead demonstrates that tobacco use causes at least 7,000 death and costs Zambians 1.2% of GDP. It also suggests that modest investments to stem tobacco use—rather than encouraging it through increased cigarette production— will save more than 40,000 lives and K12.4 billion in health costs alone over the next 5-15 years.
At the same time as new cigarette factories, Zambia’s government is amid deliberations to pass legislation to formally comply with the key provisions of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). It is an amazing opportunity to push public health in a country where male prevalence has skyrocketed above 20 percent in recent years and tobacco-attributable disease and death are on the marked increase. One of the issues under major scrutiny by stakeholders is the economics of tobacco farming. The tobacco industry continues to push a narrative that tobacco farming is economically lucrative. But in October 2019, researchers from the University of Zambia and the American Cancer Society released a second report on the economics of tobacco farming in Zambia (following up on a 2015 farming report, revised in 2017) that unequivocally demonstrates that growing tobacco continues consistently to be a difficult livelihood economically for the thousands of smallholder tobacco farmers who do it. Moreover, most of these farmers are directly contracting with the tobacco industry under terms that undermine their ability to be paid fairly for their hard work. The evidence is clear: tobacco farming is very far from any kind of lucrative endeavor.
Put simply, most tobacco farmers are operating at an economic loss. Moreover, when farmers stop growing tobacco, on average they have 5.95 times more per capita household resources than those who continued growing tobacco.
But farmers have viable alternatives: many tobacco farmers are already successfully growing and selling other major crops suitable to each region, (e.g., vegetables in Central Province and sunflower in Southern Province). Former tobacco farmers are making 1.73 times the sales of non-tobacco crops compared to tobacco-farming households.
Alarmingly, many tobacco farmers continue to use child labor to produce tobacco leaf. In the survey, nearly 20 percent of tobacco-farming households reported using child labor, and half of those households admitted to keeping their children from school to work in the tobacco fields. Further, more than half of the children working in the tobacco fields handled inorganic fertilizer and about one quarter handled dangerous agricultural chemicals. In focus groups, farmers reported that they used their children out of desperation—tobacco’s low prices prevented them from hiring legal, adult labor. In related news, the International Labour Organization’s Governing Body decided in October 2019 that it would stop taking money from the tobacco industry for child labor programs, an implicit recognition of the absurdity of the tobacco companies alleging to help address the problem that they are directly creating through artificially low prices and unfair contracts.
Food security is also a lingering issue among tobacco farmers. Cultivating tobacco leaf displaces land that could be used to grow food crops that would help to alleviate one of the world’s worst food security problems. For example, in Eastern province, more than 20 percent of tobacco farmers indicated insufficient food to feed their families, yet they continued to grow tobacco instead of food. Relatedly, tobacco farming is environmentally devastating because farmers clear trees to plant new crops and to cure tobacco, and its high input-intensity depletes soils and destroys ground water. The environmental degradation is so severe and vast in some tobacco-growing areas around Africa that it is likely having a negative effect on the regional climates.
Zambia can only gain from its proposed tobacco control legislation. We trust that the government will see through the proverbial smokescreen that the tobacco companies are creating by misrepresenting the economic utility of a dead-end agricultural pursuit.