BY AWATT JOYCE IDARAESIT
The tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health challenges the world has ever faced, killing more than eight million people around the world every year. While the number of people using tobacco products is decreasing in other parts of the world, it is rising in the Africa Region. For example, the number of tobacco users in the WHO African Region increased from an estimated 64 million adult users in 2000 to 73 million in 2018. This is partly due to the increased production of tobacco products as well as aggressive marketing by the tobacco industry.
In his message to commemorate the World Tobacco Day, Regional Director, WHO Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti said: “Today, 31 May 2023, the World Health Organization, joins the rest of the international community to commemorate World No Tobacco Day. This day provides us the opportunity to highlight the dangers associated with tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke. It is also an occasion to renew our advocacy for effective policies to halt the tobacco epidemic and its impact on individuals, societies, and nations.
This year’s theme is “Grow Food, Not Tobacco”. This theme aims to raise awareness about alternative crop production and marketing opportunities for tobacco farmers and encourage them to grow sustainable, nutritious crops. The theme also seeks to expose the tobacco industry’s efforts to interfere with attempts to substitute tobacco growing with sustainable crops, thereby worsening the global food crisis. It calls on all of us to explore how food and agricultural policies make adequate nutritious food and healthy diets available while reducing tobacco production.
Tobacco growing and production exacerbates nutrition and food insecurity. Tobacco farming destroys the ecosystems, depletes soils of fertility, contaminates water bodies and pollutes the environment. Any profits to be gained from tobacco as a cash crop may not offset the damage done to sustainable food production in low- and middle-income countries.
Nearly 828 million people are facing hunger globally. Of these, 278 million (20%) are in Africa . In addition, 57.9% of people in Africa suffer from moderate to severe food insecurity. This jeopardizes the region’s attainment of SDG 2 which aims to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture. The intensification of the major drivers behind recent food insecurity and malnutrition trends, such as conflict, climate extremes, and economic shocks, further compounds this situation. Therefore, our concerted actions are essential, so everyone has enough food. 
We face a grave challenge in food and nutrition security imposed by the increasing tobacco farming in the Africa Region. Available data shows that while the area under tobacco cultivation decreased by 15.7% globally, in Africa it increased by 3.4% from 2012 to 2018. During this period, tobacco leaf production globally reduced by 13.9%; however, it increased by 10.6% in Africa. In recent years, tobacco cultivation has shifted to Africa because of a regulatory environment that is more favourable to the tobacco industry, as well as increasing demand for tobacco.
WHO is working with Member States and other partners to assist farmers in shifting from tobacco growing to alternative crops. In the last two years, an initiative in Kenya has assisted over 2000 tobacco farmers to turn to alternative crops. This has resulted in improved food and nutrition security, increased income for farmers, healthier farming activities as well as environmental rehabilitation. The expansion of this initiative to Uganda and Zambia has started, and should be encouraged for all tobacco-growing countries in Africa.
Governments should support tobacco farmers to switch to alternative crops by ending tobacco growing subsidies and using the savings for crop substitution programmes to improve food security and nutrition. Shifting from tobacco to nutritious food crops has the potential to feed millions of families and improve the livelihoods of farming communities in Africa.
Such initiatives will also combat desertification and environmental degradation, raise awareness in tobacco farming communities about the benefits of moving away from tobacco and growing sustainable crops and exposing the tobacco industry’s efforts to obstruct sustainable livelihoods work in the Africa Region.
Finally, we appeal to tobacco-growing countries in the Africa Region to step up the implementation of Articles 17 and 18 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) by enacting legislation, developing, and implementing suitable policies and strategies, and enabling market conditions for tobacco farmers to shift to growing food crops that would provide them and their families with a better life while enhancing the protection of the environment and the health of people.”