A large group of premium tobacco producers and workers from a few tobacco growers’ countries, Colombia, Panama, Honduras and Nicaragua, protested on February 5th in front of the Panama Convention Centre where the tenth Conference of the Parties (COP) of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), is currently taking place. The FCTC aims to protect present and future generations from the impact of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke by reducing both the demand and supply of tobacco. Article 17 of the Convention requires parties to promote economically viable alternatives to smoking. It states, “Parties shall, in cooperation with each other and with competent international and regional intergovernmental organisations, promote, as appropriate, economically viable alternatives for tobacco workers, growers and, as the case may be, individual sellers.”
Farmers denounced the “exclusion” and the “lack of transparency” in the WHO’s decisions about tobacco growing measures at the protest. They demand “respect for a tradition that dates back more than 500 years”. They have also called for «common sense” to find viable solutions and consensus regarding the policies without risking millions of families’ livelihoods. “The cultural influence of premium cigar production goes beyond the process. It is an integral part of our family and community values, as well as our legacy and history,” they alerted.
The concerns are also shared among tobacco growers in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, tobacco growing has been a backbone of the economy, historically generating a significant share of the export revenue. Growers in Pakistan fear that the FCTC ratification could be Pakistan’s economic suicide. However, they hope that Pakistan being part of the discussions will offer viable economic solutions as the livelihood of millions of families and the domestic economy will be impacted if tobacco production is terminated,
Fawad Khan, Spokesperson for Mustehkam Pakistan, an advocacy platform to safeguard the interests of marginalised and low-income communities, said that farmers primarily responsible for growing tobacco would resort to suicide if FCTC continues to ratify its stance on tobacco. Pakistan’s tobacco sector currently contributes more than $1 billion in taxes, which the government desperately needs to manage its IMF arrangement.
“Grow Food, Not Tobacco” was the 2023 WHO’s World No Tobacco Day theme. There is growing recognition that diversifying away from tobacco farming can contribute to progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals in lower- and middle-income countries. However, diversification projects are often limited in scope and impact because structural barriers to tobacco diversification make it easier to challenge them.
Mushfiq Khan, a tobacco grower and Head of the All Pakistan Tobacco Farmer Association, also mentioned that the reduction of demand and supply of tobacco would cause a loss to the national exchequer and result in tobacco farmers resorting to criminal activities to make a living. Pakistan’s corruption and crime index is already in the top 10 countries, and this will further escalate the crisis Pakistan is going through. In all cases, tobacco growers consider that they should not be excluded from the discussions and should be invited to sit at the table when their future is being discussed.