AS the clock winds down to the October meeting of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control(FCTC) – a grouping of countries and bodies that intend to limit the trade in tobacco and eventually ban it – lobbyists are ratcheting up the pressure to forestall proposals that are likely to negatively affect the lucrative sector.
Last week, the International Tobacco Growers’ Association (ITGA) held its regional meeting in Harare to try and pool a common position before the sixth Conference of Parties of the FCTC scheduled between October 13 and October 18 in Moscow, Russia.
ITGA was born out of a resolve by farmers from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Malawi, USA and Zimbabwe to form an organisation that promotes and develops their common interests throughout the world.
Zimbabwe Tobacco Association president Mr Gavin Foster said last week Africa and the West do not share a common position on tobacco and a ban on the golden leaf would therefore be unjust, ill-considered and catastrophic for African countries and the legions of its small holder farmers.
He noted that Africa should collectively resist misplaced calls when parties meet in Moscow later this year.
“People in the West need to understand (that) their view of tobacco is totally different from ours and therefore cannot set rules for everyone without knowledge of how tobacco works here,” Mr Foster said on the sidelines of the ITGA regional conference held in Harare on July 1.
“It is important for us to show the world how important tobacco is to our economies.”
Although the FCTC, which is the first treaty signed under the auspices of the World Health Organisation, was marketed as an instrument that was meant limit the global consumption of tobacco through targeted restrictions on production, advertising and marketing – virtually the whole value chain of tobacco – Western countries actively pushed for a complete ban in the production and “illicit” sale of tobacco at the fifth COP of the FCTC in Seoul, South Korea, in November 2012.
Despite being the world’s fourth-largest tobacco producer after China, Brazil and the USA, Zimbabwe has not acceded to the convention. It can only attend the COP as an observer.
Tobacco is a major revenue earner in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho and Tanzania. Local tobacco growers last year pocketed about US$600 million from the sale of 153 million kg of the golden leaf, almost two-thirds of the country’s total agricultural exports. About 90 000 of local farmers are small-scale or communal.
In the current marketing season, tobacco earnings are expected to exceed US$650 million as farmers are set to deliver over 210 million kg of the crop, 26 kg short of the peak production of 236 million kg achieved in the mid-1990s. However, Mr Foster acknowledged that small holder farmers needed to be resourced in order to adopt best practices in the production of the crop.
Most small-scale farmers are presently using wood to cure their produce.
“Some farmers need help because they cannot afford coal. We need more research on more efficient curing methods that do not compromise the crop and the environment,” said Mr Foster.
An estimated 7,5 million trees are destroyed every year, especially indigenous species that take longer to mature. A local organisation, Sustainable Afforestation Association (SAA), which raises money through a 0,5 percent levy on the country’s net annual tobacco earnings, has since committed to engage in an aggressive afforestation programme.
The revenue collected is used to establish tree plantations in the country, which upon maturity will be sold for tobacco curing and meet other wood fuel needs.
SAA chief executive Ms Maggie Okore said the tobacco industry was growing fast in the past decade with much contribution coming from the small holder farmers. As such, the initiative would ease the wood fuel problems in tobacco-growing provinces, where the initiative is targeting.
“SAA’s goal is to establish 4 500 hectares of trees annually. To date 600 hectares have been planted for the 2013/14 season, with 2 200 trees per hectare. We are focusing on the high volume tobacco growing provinces,” she said.
Conspiracy theories that are being bandied around suggest that the lobby against the crop might be a calculated ploy by conglomerates that intend to push for electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) as an alternative to tobacco products.
An e-cigarette is a tobacco-free smoking stick with false smoke that is able to satisfy the nicotine cravings for smokers.
One can smoke the e-cigarette and put in the pocket while “burning” without harm. The light mimics the burning
from the traditional cigarette.
In the past 10 years, the global e-cigarette market has grown several thousand fold from just US$500 000 to over US$4 billion per annum at present.
Tobacco Industry Development Support Institute executive director Mr Jeffrey Takawira said the impending ban on tobacco was a ploy and marketing gimmick to promote the e-cigarette.
“The debate on tobacco ban is a war waged in private and presented as a scientific debate to the public. As TIDSI we believe this is simply a market-driven initiative.
“Smoking is a choice and people die because of the choices they make. What we need is awareness on the dangers of smoking so that people can then make a choice.
“In the long term, more people will die if tobacco is banned because it is a cash crop sustaining many livelihoods,” he said in an interview.
Tobacco farming in Zimbabwe has grown with small holder farmers migrating towards it because it is more lucrative than food crops like maize. Researchers are beginning to question the motives of those bankrolling the anti-tobacco crusade, particularly their curious shareholding in pharmaceutical companies that are poised to profit from a post-tobacco era.
A recent study authored by David Stuckler of Harvard University’s Department of Global Health and Population, Sanjay Basu of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Department of Public Health and Policy, and Martin McKee of the Division of General Internal Medicine at San Francisco General Hospital, mused on whether the Gates Foundation is “heavily invested in the manufacture of health-damaging sugary drinks and sickness-reliant drug companies”, can be trusted as an independent financier of public health.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s corporate stock endowment is heavily invested in food and pharmaceutical companies.
American billionaires Mr Bill Gates and Mr Michael Bloomberg are believed to have injected more than US$600 million in the anti-tobacco lobby to date.
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