2023 World No Tobacco Day: WHO warns of smoking epidemic in Africa

By Adeze Ojukwu

World Health Organization(WHO), has again raised concerns, over a looming tobacco epidemic in Africa. It called on African leaders to confront cigarette companies, who are bolstering tobacco farming in the continent.

“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.”

WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, stated this on Wednesday, in a message to mark this year’s World No Tobacco Day(WNTD). The commemoration is observed, annually, to highlight the harmful impact of tobacco use on human health and lives.

Indeed, the world needs to understand this: Tobacco business is bad business. Ample scientific evidence shows that growing this nicotine-rich plant harms people including, the farmers and the planet. According to the apex health agency, the tobacco industry interferes with attempts to substitute tobacco growing, contributing to the global food crisis.

“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,” she added.

In Nigeria, this date has little or no meaning for most citizens. This is largely, because about 133 million nationals are poor and distraught. Most of the masses are shackled by hopelessness, arising from the nation’s intractable political, social and economic crises. Therefore, many are unperturbed about the anti-tobacco battle. Same can be said of other African nations, where corruption, bad governance and pauperism have pushed people to an indescribable brink.

This explains why smoking is escalating in Nigeria and many sections of the continent. African leaders need to join the rest of the world to confront this problem, in order to mitigate the severe consequences of taking nicotine products. According to Moeti, the date provides opportunities to highlight the dangers associated with tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke. It is also an occasion to renew the advocacy for effective policies to halt the tobacco epidemic and its impact on individuals, societies, and nations.

With the theme of this edition, aptly, tagged: “Grow Food, Not Tobacco,” she said “the aim is 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.”

Below are excerpts of her statement:
“Tobacco growing and production exacerbate nutrition and food insecurity. It destroys the ecosystems, depletes soils of fertility, contaminates water bodies and pollutes the environment. Any profit 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 percent are in Africa. In addition, 57.9 percent 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. 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 percent globally, in Africa it increased by 3.4 percent from 2012 to 2018. During this period, tobacco leaf production, globally reduced by 13.9 percent.

“However, it increased by 10.6 percent 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. 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. By doing this, we will be growing food, which our populations need, not tobacco.”

The onus is on African leaders to heed this call. The region cannot continue to exhibit a dangerous apathy to this menace and other challenges, confronting its people. Clearly, the fight against smoking will not wane, until the deadly habit declines, significantly. The global initiatives against tobacco can be accelerated and achieved in Nigeria and rest of Africa, if governments and relevant authorities, promote this campaign effectively, through a holistic approach, that involves farmers, corporate conglomerates, stakeholders, public institutions and the media. Until appropriate action is taken, tobacco use will continue to hurt Africans and its impoverished masses.

•Ojukwu, a journalist, author and Fellow of Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship, a US sponsored Fulbright programme, is an advocate for justice, equity and good governance. Kindly send feedback to [email protected]

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