WHO: We need food, not tobacco
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WHO: We need food, not tobacco

As we mark World No Tobacco Day today, it is imperative that we reflect on this year's theme: "We need food, not tobacco." While smoking continues to pose a significant public health threat in Thailand, we must also recognise the adverse impact of tobacco cultivation on tobacco farmers, food security and the environment.

Consider this -- in Thailand, approximately one in 10 people lack access to sufficient food. Yet, some agricultural lands are being used to cultivate tobacco. Thailand is the second-largest tobacco leaf producer in Asean and the 16th-largest globally.

According to the National Economic and Social Development Council, Thailand faces a "food security crisis", despite being the world's 13th-largest food exporter. UN agencies last year reported that 10.5% of the Thai population faces severe food insecurity (ie, no food for a day or more). In fact, Sustainable Development Goal 2 (Zero Hunger) is one of the two Goals that are regressing in Thailand.

Tobacco farmers can be particularly vulnerable to food insecurity as they cannot consume their products as food. Furthermore, tobacco cultivation is often less profitable than other crops for most farmers as it requires much higher inputs, including labour, pesticides and wood fuel for curing. Data from the Philippines show that the net income per hectare for Virginia tobacco leaf (US$1,147, which is 40,000 baht) is lower than that of garlic (US$1,730) or eggplants (US$2,041). In Indonesia, tobacco farmers dedicate 1,363 working hours per hectare per year. In contrast, non-tobacco farmers invest only 197 hours per hectare, which allows them to allocate more time to other income-generating activities.

Tobacco farmers and their families also face significant health risks, which could impose costs, diverting limited money from nutritious food. Research revealed that nearly a quarter (22.6%) of traditional tobacco farmers in Nan province of northern Thailand suffered from green tobacco sickness (poisoning caused by nicotine absorbed through the skin from handling tobacco leaves). The prevalence was higher among females (27.5%) than males (17.9%).

Tobacco leaves are produced in 20 provinces in the North and Northeast of Thailand, where poverty rates are higher than the national average. Recent research involving nearly 3,000 tobacco farmers in northern Thailand found that almost 60% wished to quit tobacco farming primarily due to economic reasons. Tobacco farmers often discover that their income falls short of the production costs, leading to financial struggles, persistent debt and substandard quality of life. In short, tobacco farmers face food, health and poverty risks.

Tobacco farming also damages the environment through heavy use of pesticides, deforestation and loss of biodiversity. Chemicals from pesticides escape into the aquatic environment, contaminating lakes, rivers and drinking water. Trees are cut down, and land is cleared to make space for tobacco crops. This further contributes to carbon dioxide emissions and climate change.

Around the world, efforts have been made to support tobacco farmers transitioning to non-tobacco crops. For example, since 2004, the Malaysian government has encouraged tobacco farmers to cultivate kenaf plants, which are used in producing various commodities, such as paper, fabric and biofuels. The number of tobacco growers decreased significantly from 20,000 to 100 in 2022. The Philippines passed a law that designates a percentage of tobacco tax revenues to support tobacco farmers who may experience negative impacts from declining tobacco sales.

In Thailand, the World Health Organization (WHO) assists and monitors the implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), a legally binding treaty that Thailand ratified in 2004. Regarding this year's theme, FCTC Articles 17 and 18 highlight that parties to the convention shall support farmers by offering technical advice on sustainable alternative crops, linking them to necessary supplies and marketing, and providing financial support to increase the production of healthy food.

Facilitating sustainable positive changes necessitates community involvement and empowerment. By supporting the localisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and promoting local capacity development, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) creates opportunities to invest in sustainable agriculture and food systems. In doing so, support for alternative livelihoods and food security for tobacco farmers can be integrated.

Additionally, WHO and UNDP jointly published "Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases in Thailand: The Case for Investment", which recommends, among others, the allocation of funds generated from tobacco taxes to support alternative livelihoods among tobacco farmers. Thailand has a remarkable track record in crop substitution. The Royal Project, introduced in 1969 by His Late Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great, has successfully supported nearly 40,000 poppy-growing households transitioning to alternative crop cultivation, such as coffee, tea, fruits and vegetables. According to Thailand Sustainable Development Foundation, the average income of former poppy-growing households who transitioned increased tenfold. Between 1985 and 2015, poppy cultivation was reduced by 97%, without relapse.

There are several initiatives on introducing alternative crops to tobacco, including the project supported by Thai Health Promotion Foundation. According to Dr Isra Sarntisart, the chairman of the Muslim Thais Well-being Promotion Foundation, under this project, a total of 91 households and 16 communities have completely replaced tobacco with other crops and are earning a sufficient income.

Tobacco farmers deserve a higher income, a safer working environment and a better quality of life. On World No Tobacco Day, we call on the government for a policy and measurable target on economically sustainable alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers, enabling them to successfully transition to non-tobacco crops. This will ultimately help to advance sustainable development, strengthen food security and promote better health in Thailand.

Renaud Meyer, UNDP Resident Representative in Thailand. Jos Vandelaer, WHO Representative to Thailand.

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