Promoting crop alternatives for tobacco will save lives and livelihoods
One million out of the global seven million annual tobacco-related deaths occur in India. To fight tobacco control measures is therefore a fallacy, and instead another solution needs to be foundeditorials Updated: May 29, 2017 16:18 IST
Hoardings of a teary farmer thanking the government with folded hands for protecting farmers’ livelihood cropped up in Lutyen’s Delhi last week. It’s not loan waivers or subsidies that farmers are grateful for. The farmer in the advertisement is thanking government for taking action against NGOs receiving foreign funds, referring to the recent Ministry of Home Affairs order cancelling FCRA registrations of at least three NGOs working in the area of tobacco-control in states cultivating tobacco.
All three – Institute of Health, Voluntary Health Association of India (Assam), and Public Health Foundation of India – were running tobacco-control projects in Andhra, Assam, Gujarat and Karnataka, which are among India’s 13 tobacco-growing states, says the Tobacco Institute of India (TII), which represents farmers, manufacturers, exporters and ancillaries of the cigarette industry.
Though cigarettes account for just 11% of tobacco use in India – bidis, chewing and smokeless tobacco constitute the rest – TII says India’s tobacco-control efforts have lowered domestic demand for home-grown Flue-Cured Virginia (FCV) and pushed up illegal cigarette trade, leading to farmers’ earnings dropping around Rs 1,500 crore between 2014 and 2016. “Our fellow farmers have committed suicide due to their acts,” states the advertisement.
More than highlighting farmers’ loss of income from lowered demand for tobacco, the hoardings advertise the effectiveness of India’s efforts to lower use and prevent tobacco-related diseases and deaths. Tobacco is highly addictive and kills half of its users. One million of the seven million annual deaths worldwide from tobacco-related diseases such as cancers, lung diseases, heart disease and stroke occur in India. Against this public health challenge, arguing that preventing disease and deaths will lead to farmers’ suicides is a fallacy.
India is the world’s second largest producer of tobacco, with 60% of its annual production of 800 million kg being exported. Domestic demand accounts for just 40% of FCV cultivated in India, so the gains from improved health and lives saved from shrinking domestic demand clearly outweighs losses to farmers.
Increasing export of this highly addictive crop is not an ethical option. The challenge then is to ensure that farmers have viable substitutes for a tobacco crop. India took a lead in the inclusion of Article 17 in the world Health Organisation’s Framework Convention of Tobacco Control, the world’s first public health treaty that mandates countries support economically-viable alternative for workers, growers and sellers. Instead of fighting tobacco-control measures, India must save farmers’ livelihoods by promoting viable crop alternatives to tobacco.