World No Tobacco Day is celebrated on 31 May each year. This year, the theme is ‘grow food, not tobacco’.
Tobacco growing harms our health, the health of farmers and the planet’s health. The tobacco industry interferes with attempts to substitute tobacco growing, contributing to the global food crisis.
This year’s campaign encourages governments to end tobacco growing subsidies and use the savings to support farmers to switch to more sustainable crops that improve food security and nutrition.
Tobacco is grown in over 124 countries, taking up 3.2 million hectares of fertile land that could be used to grow food. These resources are diverted to support the production of a crop that kills over 8 million people every year, erodes the economy and damages the environment. Globally, 79 countries are facing acute food insecurity. The majority are low- and middle-income countries, and over 30 are on the African continent.
Tobacco growing compounds the food security issues faced by these countries – scarce arable land is not being used to grow much needed food crops, and forests are also being destroyed to create room for tobacco production, as well as to provide fuel needed for curing the tobacco leaves.
Tobacco farmers are exposed to a number of health risks, including green tobacco sickness, a form of occupational poisoning which is caused by nicotine absorbed through the skin from the handling of wet tobacco leaves, exposure to heavy use of pesticides and exposure to tobacco dust.
A tobacco farmer who plants, cultivates and harvests tobacco may absorb nicotine equivalent to 50 cigarettes per day.
Additionally, tobacco farmers often carry harmful substances home on their bodies, clothes or shoes, leading to harmful secondary exposure for their families, especially children. Tobacco farmers also inhale large amounts of tobacco smoke during the curing process, which increases the risk of chronic lung conditions and other health issues.
The environment also suffers greatly owing to deforestation, contamination of water sources and degradation of soil. Tobacco smoke emanating from curing tobacco leaves pollutes the environment. Tobacco growing is also associated with child labour and gender inequality. Because growing tobacco is labour-intensive and tobacco takes up to 8–9 months to mature, it is difficult for tobacco farmers to grow other crops, including food crops, within the same year.
Tobacco is not a highly profitable crop for farmers or governments, despite the tobacco industry exaggerating its economic importance. In most tobacco-growing countries, the contribution of tobacco leaf imports and exports is small (<1% of gross domestic product (GDP)).
Evidence reveals that alternative value chains could provide at least the same, if not more, return for farmers as compared with tobacco growing, provided that the same supportive farming and marketing system is in place.
Shifting from tobacco to nutritious food crops has the potential to feed millions of families and improve the livelihoods of farming communities globally.
Governments should support tobacco farmers to switch to alternative crops by ending tobacco growing subsidies and reallocating resources to support alternatives to tobacco growing.
Brazil, China and India account for over 55% of global tobacco production, and they are continuing to sustain their production without adding more acreage. The other countries in the top 10 are Indonesia, Malawi, Mozambique, Türkiye, United Republic of Tanzania, United States of America and Zimbabwe.
In high-income countries, tobacco growing has decreased over time despite government support and subsidies for tobacco production. In recent decades, transnational tobacco corporations have lowered production costs by moving tobacco leaf production to low-income countries. Tobacco companies are therefore increasingly targeting these settings, particularly African countries, to scale-up tobacco leaf production.
From 2005 to 2020, the area under tobacco cultivation decreased globally by 15.8%, while in Africa it increased by 19.8%. East Africa accounts for 88.5% of tobacco leaf production in Africa, while northern African countries in the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region have little or no role in tobacco production, though they have significant trade volumes in the import of tobacco leaf and/or cigarettes.
Link to the World No Tobacco Day site:
Link to WHO’s quitting toolkit:
Link to WHO fact sheet on Tobacco: