The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged governments across the world to stop subsidizing life-threatening tobacco crops and instead support more sustainable crops that could feed millions of the world’s hungry.

WHO made the appeal in a statement to mark the 2023 World No Tobacco Day themed “We need food, not tobacco”.

This comes as the need to grow more food becomes ever more urgent amid a growing global food crisis driven mainly by conflict, climate change, and the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the ripple effects of the Russia/Ukraine war driving rising food, fuel and fertilizer prices.

Across the globe, more than 300 million people are faced with acute food insecurity, according to WHO, but tobacco growing stands in the way of food security, with around 4 million hectares of land converted for tobacco growing each year.

“Currently, tobacco is grown in over 125 countries as a cash crop, over an estimated area of 4 million hectares (ha), which is an area larger than the country of Rwanda. The harmful effects of the cultivation on the environment are particularly apparent in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC),” WHO said in a November 7, 2022 release announcing the 2023 global campaign for World No Tobacco Day.

The World No Tobacco Day, marked 31 May every year, is an opportunity to raise awareness on the harmful and deadly effects of tobacco use. The 2023 World No Tobacco Day campaign seeks to mobilize governments to end subsidies on tobacco growing and use the savings for crop substitution programmes that support farmers to switch and improve food security and nutrition; raise awareness in tobacco farming communities about the benefits of moving away from tobacco and growing sustainable crops; support efforts to combat desertification and environmental degradation by decreasing tobacco farming; and expose industry efforts to obstruct sustainable livelihoods work.

Tobacco growing is bad for public health, the health of farmers and the planet’s health, WHO said. For instance, a tobacco farmer who plants, cultivates and harvests tobacco may absorb as much nicotine as found in 50 cigarettes in a single day.

“Tobacco is responsible for 8 million deaths a year, yet governments across the world spend millions supporting tobacco farms,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“By choosing to grow food instead of tobacco, we prioritize health, preserve ecosystems, and strengthen food security for all,” he said.

WHO in a new report further highlights the ills of tobacco growing and the benefits of switching to more sustainable food crops for farmers, communities, economies, the environment, and the world at large.

The report, “Grow food, not tobacco”, also exposes the tobacco industry for trapping farmers in a vicious cycle of debt, propagating tobacco growing by exaggerating its economic benefits and lobbying through farming front groups.

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Whereas the tobacco industry often claims to be an advocate for the livelihood of tobacco farmers, WHO said this is a far cry from the truth.

“The intensive handling of insecticides and toxic chemicals during the cultivation of tobacco contributes to many farmers and their families suffering from ill health. Further, unfair contractual arrangements with tobacco companies keep farmers impoverished, and the child labour that is often woven into tobacco cultivation interferes with the right to education and is a violation of human rights,” it said.

It said nine of the 10 largest tobacco cultivators are low- and middle-income countries, and four of these are defined as low-income food-deficit countries.

Tobacco farming also has adverse impact on the environment. A resource-intensive venture that requires heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers, tobacco growing leads to depletion of water sources, soil erosion, contamination of the air and water systems, and contributes to deforestation of 200,000 hectares of land a year, WHO said.

“Compared with other agricultural activities such as maize growing and even livestock grazing, tobacco farming has a far more destructive impact on ecosystems as tobacco farmlands are more prone to desertification,” the world health body said.

“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,” it said.

Furthermore, WHO said more than 1 million child labourers are estimated to be working on tobacco farms, missing their opportunity for an education.

While the focus of the anti-tobacco campaign has so far been in Asia and South America, WHO said the latest data show tobacco companies are expanding to Africa, with nearly 20 percent increase in tobacco farming land across Africa since 2005.

As a result, WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme have been supporting the Tobacco Free Farms initiative that will provide help to more than 5,000 farmers in Kenya and Zambia to grow sustainable food crops instead of tobacco.

In Kenya, the three organisations have been collaborating on an alternative livelihood project, working with farmers to use the collective purchasing system within the United Nations to create an enabling and supportive crop production and marketing ecosystem that incentivizes farmers to move away from tobacco farming.

“Over the last few months, we have seen long-time tobacco farmers planting alternative crops like high-iron beans in fields where tobacco once grew – a tremendous achievement in the world of tobacco control. The former tobacco farmers report better health, education gains for their children and increased wages,” Dr Vinayak M Prasad, Unit Head, No Tobacco (TFI) at WHO, said in a 2022 report.