Harare — THE controversial World Health Organisation Framework Convention on tobacco marketing ban, to be effected as international law early this year, will have adverse implications on Zimbabwe and most countries in the SADC region whose economies are agro-based.
The WHO International Framework Convention on tobacco is a treaty that provides for a global ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship.
The enactment of the convention into an international law spells nothing but disaster for Zimbabwe, as this will throw Zimbabwe's lucrative tobacco industry into uncertainty.
The treaty is a brainchild of former WHO director General Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland who instigated tough measures on tobacco marketing after it had been established that tobacco related illnesses were the second major cause of death among adults after HIV and Aids.
However, the controversial treaty will become international law on February 28 2005 once it has been ratified by more than 40 countries.
The WHO Treaty was unanimously adopted by the 56th World Health Assembly in May 2003 following almost three years of negotiations. During the year that followed, while it was open for signature, 167 countries and the European Community signed, and 23 countries became contracting parties to the Framework Convention, making it one of the most rapidly embraced UN Treaties of all time.
According to WHO, the signing by the 40th country, Peru, will see the agreement become the first international legally binding public health treaty under the auspices of WHO.
"The momentum growing around the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) seems unstoppable. It demonstrates the importance placed by the international community on saving many of the millions of lives now lost to tobacco," said Dr Lee Jong-wook, WHO Director-General.
"I look forward to more countries joining the 40 states that are making it possible for this Treaty to become law."
The 40 contracting parties as of 30 November 2004 included Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, France, Ghana, Hungary, India, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Seychelles, Singapore, Slovakia, and Uruguay.
Tobacco contributes to at least 70 percent of Zimbabwe's foreign currency earnings.
Local stakeholders in tobacco production have received the development with mixed feelings.
Some are of the school of thought that they would feel the pinch as the ratification of the treaty comes at a time when tobacco production had been experiencing a steady growth.
Zimbabwe Tobacco Association spokesperson Mr Duncan Miller said Zimbabwe should concentrate on how it can survive the international treaty, which will eventually become law next year, since agriculture remains the backbone of the economy.
"It is not only Zimbabwe that is affected. Malawi is heavily dependent on tobacco.
"It negatively affects the whole SADC region, therefore each country should have homegrown solutions which suit them," he said.
Others, however, said while the law would have a negative impact on the country, they said the delay by the international community was a positive development which, they said gave the country ample time to maximise on production.
It also gave farmers an opportunity to diversify into other crops that would generate foreign currency for the country.
"It is worrying that the convention may have an impact on the local crop at a time when we are anticipating a rebound on total production.
"However this is not to suggest that local producers of the crop would just sit back and moan.
"We have realised a number of opportunities," said an official from the Zimbabwe Tobacco Growers Association.
The international law will bind countries legally by forcing them to adhere to the WHO regulations failing which countries could face legal action.
The ban on the golden leaf comes at a time when thousands of farmers in the country were making inroads in the sector following the Government's successful land reform programme.
The industry, apart from being the country's largest earner, employs over 400 000 people.
The ratification by the 40th country, Peru, will increase the pressure on the 24-country member International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA) which has been putting up a fierce fight against the FCTC. The ITGA's argument is that the ban would have a negative impact on the livelihood of the millions of people who are dependent on the tobacco industry.
Zimbabwe and, ironically, China, are members of the ITGA but China is one of the countries that have signed the treaty. It, however, remains to be seen whether or not they will ratify it. Tobacco is said to be the cause of death of five million people per year and WHO says its toll will double in the next 20 years if it is not banned.
It is expected that the total number of people who would have perished owing to tobacco related illnesses would have risen to 1,7 billion by 2005, up from the present 1,3 billion.
Countries such as Uganda have gone a step further in ensuring tobacco ban by arresting those caught smoking in public places.
However, smokers are of the conviction that the ban on tobacco marketing will have little or no effect on their smoking habits.
"I don't think banning adverts and anything to do with tobacco will make me quit.
"It will not have much effect really," said Janet Smith, who has been smoking for the past 15 years.
Ms Smith said instead of worrying about the production of tobacco, WHO should instead work on the means to get smokers to quit.
"Instead of banning tobacco marketing, the international organisation must devise ways by coming up with programmes that will help smokers kick the habit.
"As it is, people will still find a way of growing and selling tobacco illegally," she added.
World's leading manufacturer of cigarettes the British American Tobacco South Africa dismissed the international treaty as "short sighted", saying the ban would see the tobacco industry failing to live up to its social responsibility.
The tobacco industry over the years has played a pivotal role in as far as social responsibility is concerned.
The industry has been responsible for a number of sponsorships, which range from education to sporting activities.
A weekly newspaper quoted the Minister of Health and Child Welfare, Dr David Parirenyatwa, saying that a balance had to be achieved in instituting practical tobacco control activities that will serve the best interest of the country. "It is a serious challenge that we need to take seriously," he said.
However, on a health point of view, Dr Parirenyatwa said Zimbabwe was one of the countries that took part in the 56th convention which gave birth to the controversial treaty.
"There has been no ratification yet," the minister stressed.
An economist from Kingdom Bank, Mr Witness Chinyama, said that the ratification of the 40th country posed a serious threat to the country's agro-based economy.
"Tobacco is our major foreign currency earner. This development will mean that we won't be able to generate as much foreign exchange as we used to.
"Since our economy is on a larger scale agro-based, we find ourselves in a very difficult situation.
"The way forward would be to find alternative means, for example we could direct our focus to platinum and gold."
Mr Chinyama added that though it was important to look at alternative means, tobacco still offered the best economic return per hectare as compared to other crops grown in Zimbabwe.
He said a hectare of tobacco is 22 times more profitable than cotton, 57 times more profitable than maize and 59 times more profitable than soya beans.
He also said that tobacco was a springboard for the production of other crops.
Mr Chinyama's argument is based on the fact that tobacco growers in Zimbabwe produce some 35 percent of the country's maize, 30 percent of beef, 30 percent of the total wheat output and 20 percent of the national soya beans production.
"According to the tobacco and commercial yearbook of 1995, tobacco financed the spectacular improvement in farming methods which have led to Zimbabwe achieving self-sufficiency and exportable surpluses in food and cash crops," he concluded.