The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling on African governments to impose environmental tax levies on tobacco value and supply chains, including production, processing, distribution, sales, consumption, and waste management.
Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, made the call on Monday in a message to commemorate World No Tobacco Day, which is always celebrated on May 31, every year.
She said the year’s theme, ‘Tobacco: Threat to our environment’, aimed to highlight the environmental impact of the entire tobacco cycle, from cultivation, production, and distribution, to the toxic waste it generates.
Dr Moeti encouraged African countries to accelerate the implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), which provides the necessary guidance to advance the creation of smoke-free environments, create programmes to support tobacco users to quit, and support the application of excise tax and other financial countermeasures.
“Reducing tobacco consumption is a key catalyst towards realizing the health-related Sustainable Development Goals but, as the environmental evidence illustrates, the benefits go far beyond health,” she said.
She further added that for tobacco-growing countries, “I fully commit WHO’s support to assist farmers to switch to alternative crops.”
In November last year, the index by STOP, the global tobacco industry watchdog ranked Kenya among the top 10 countries worldwide that implemented tobacco control measures
To help counter the threat, WHO has joined hands with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Kenyan government to create the Tobacco-Free Farms project.
Launched in March, the project supports farms to switch from tobacco to alternative food crops that will help feed communities, rather than harm their health.
UN agencies and the government provide training, inputs such as seeds and fertilizer, and a ready market for their harvest through the World Food Programme’s local procurement initiatives.
So far, 330 Kenyan farmers have switched to growing beans, with the first harvest yielding more than 200 metric tons.
The second season, which has just begun, has attracted another 1,000 farmers. This, Dr. Moeti says is extremely encouraging for plans to roll the programme out to other tobacco-growing countries on the continent.
“This is the kind of hard evidence that is essential to change the mindsets of farmers, and governments, who believe that tobacco is a cash crop with the potential to generate economic growth. In Malawi, for example, tobacco accounts for about half of all exports.”
Dr Moeti continued to say that tobacco growing is a significant driver of deforestation, due to the large quantities of wood needed for curing, which is, in turn, one of the largest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Also advancing loss of biodiversity, land degradation, and desertification.
Additionally, tobacco cultivation exposes farmers to several health risks, including “green tobacco sickness”, which is caused by nicotine absorbed through the skin during the handling of wet tobacco leaves, as well as exposure to pesticides and tobacco dust.
Cigarette butts, meanwhile, are by far the single largest category of litter, with research showing that cellulose acetate-based cigarette filters are largely non-biodegradable.
Cigarette butts litter pavements, parks, and beaches, finding their way into waterways and leaching harmful chemicals that poison animals, aquatic life and children.
According to the Ministry of Health data, more than 6,000 Kenyans die of tobacco-related diseases every year (79 men and 37 women die per week).
An estimated 220,000 children and over 2.7 million adults use tobacco each day in Kenya.
Globally, tobacco kills more than 8 million people every year and over one million of the deaths are attributed to exposure to second-hand smoke.