World News

African farmers fear tobacco curb "catastrophe"

JOHANNESBURG/LONDON (Reuters) - An international push to ban burley tobacco, a key ingredient in Marlboro and Lucky Strike cigarettes, could threaten the livelihoods of 3.6 million African tobacco workers, an industry body said on Thursday.

Cigarettes are be seen in a tobacco shop in New York April 1, 2009. An international push to ban burley tobacco, a key ingredient in Marlboro and Lucky Strike cigarettes, could threaten the livelihoods of 3.6 million African tobacco workers, an industry body said on Thursday. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/Files

The 170 countries and the European Union that have signed up to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) are to debate the “guidelines” to ban burley at a meeting in Uruguay later this month.

If approved, states will have to decide for themselves whether to outlaw the variety, which goes into the “American blend” cigarette tobacco preferred by smokers in most Western markets.

However, farmers’ groups say it will have an immediate and huge impact on demand for a crop that is vital to many poor southern African countries -- most notably Malawi, where a third of the economy and 70 percent of exports come from tobacco.

“For southern Africa, this would be a catastrophe,” said Antonio Abrunhosa, chief executive of the International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA). “The biggest chunk of burley production comes from Africa, especially Malawi,” he said.

At a summit in Swaziland in September, the 19-country Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), voiced its opposition to the mooted burley ban and said the WHO’s thinking about alternative crops was based on “wrong assumptions”.

Canada and Norway are leading the push for a burley ban as part of a plan to make cigarettes taste less smooth, thereby hoping to dent their attractiveness and help reduce the enormous public health costs of smoking.

While smoking rates are falling in U.S., Japan and western Europe, they are still rising in much of the developing world and health officials say this will cause a wave of cancer and other chronic illnesses in coming decades that health systems in poorer countries are ill-equipped to deal with.


According to the WHO and the World Lung Foundation, smoking currently kills around 5 million people a year worldwide and is expected to kill a billion people this century if trends hold.

“The idea is to look into ingredients and to look at restricting or inhibiting those which increase the attractiveness of tobacco products,” said Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the WHO’s FCTC. “Countries are working hard in the best interests of public health.”

Growers argue a burley ban would be likely to make a difference only in rich countries that like “American blends”.

The WHO says it has noted the concerns of burley farmers, and says the Uruguay meeting will also discuss ideas for economically sustainable alternatives to growing tobacco.

But the ITGA cites a study by South African consultancy NKC Independent Economists that suggests a worst-case scenario of 3.6 million tobacco-related jobs being lost in nine African countries.

In Malawi, a country of 13 million people with one of the world’s heaviest HIV/AIDS burdens, the independent study says 700,000 farmers could go to the wall and the economy could contract by 20 percent next year if burley demand disappeared.

Mozambique would lose 100,000 farmers, Uganda 77,000 and Zimbabwe 55,000, it added.

Abrunhosa said few of these farmers would have the means to switch to growing other more capital-intensive tobaccos than burley, and he argues there are no good substitute crops.

“The WHO lives on a different planet. It is not taking into account the huge impact it will have on developing countries’ economies, especially in Africa,” he said.

Marlboro cigarettes are made by Philip Morris International and Lucky Strike by British American Tobacco. Abrunhosa said the ITGA had received “some support” from the tobacco industry for its campaign against the burley ban.

Editing by Giles Elgood