More than 5,700 Malawians die of diseases caused by tobacco smoking every year, according to the Tobacco Atlas co-published by the American Cancer Society and Vital Strategies, a lobby organisation that promotes preventive health care. Vital Strategies’ president Jose Castro says tobacco control could be achieved if there was “enough political will”. According to Castro, governments must take “bold steps to end the production of tobacco.”
The American Cancer Society’s vice-president Jeffrey Drope who co-edited the report writes that “every death from tobacco is preventable”. He adds that “any government has the capacity to reduce the economic and human suffering from tobacco.”
Some 70,700 adults over 15 years of age use tobacco daily in Malawi, and so do more than 5,000 children aged between 10 and 14. Since the leaf is the country’s main stay of the economy, the call to end tobacco production is falling on deaf ears in Malawi. Tobacco contributes 11 % to the gross domestic product (GDP) and accounts for 60 % of foreign exchange earnings, as statistics from the Tobacco Control Commission (TCC), a parastatal agency, show. About 80 % of the rural workforce are employed in the tobacco production.
Last year, George Chaponda, a former minister of agriculture, vowed that Malawi will never yield to outside pressure to stop growing tobacco. He argued that there is no crop that can replace it. “We are not stopping growing tobacco anytime soon,” Chaponda said.
Tobacco is dubbed Malawi’s green gold. An estimated 350,000 farmers grow tobacco in Malawi. According to TCC statistics, in the 2015/2016 growing season tobacco sales hit $ 276 million from 195 million kg. In 2016/2017, tobacco sales fetched $ 212 million from 106 million kg.
Campaigners have been calling to end tobacco production for over a decade in Malawi, but both farmers and the government are not listening. Tobacco farming is politically sensitive. Those in power must consider this issue carefully.
As public health concerns because of tobacco-related diseases are increasing, the campaign is intensifying, but there is little it can achieve in Malawi. Generating income is the top priority.
Raphael Mweninguwe is a freelance journalist based in Malawi.