The Herald (Harare)

31 May 2014

Zimbabwe: Tobacco - Development or Disease?

On World No Tobacco Day (May 31), the World Health Organisation calls on countries to raise taxes on tobacco to promote quitting and prevent new users. Tobacco continues to be the leading cause of preventable death and it eventually kills up to half of its users - one in every six seconds. According to WHO, "the tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced, killing nearly six million people a year."

Tobacco farming raises incomes for resettled farmers, or does it?

Tobacco use directly causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases (including emphysema, bronchitis, and chronic airway obstruction), and diabetes -- all very costly diseases.

Tobacco-induced diseases often strike people in the prime of their working lives, negatively affecting productivity and causing dwindling incomes.

Increased taxes would be good for the overall health of individuals and the nation.

Based on 2012 data, WHO estimates that increasing global tobacco taxes by 50 percent would reduce the number of smokers by 49 million within three years and save 11 million lives.

"Price increases are two to three times more effective in reducing tobacco use among young people than among older adults," says Dr Douglas Bettcher, Director of the Department for Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases at WHO.

"Tax policy can be divisive, but this is the tax rise everyone can support.

"As tobacco taxes go up, death and disease go down."

Raising taxes on tobacco is a core element of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), an international treaty that entered into force in 2005.

According to article 6 of the WHO FCTC, "Price and Tax Measures to Reduce the Demand for Tobacco, recognises that price and tax measures are an effective and important means of reducing tobacco consumption by various segments of the population, in particular young persons".

Young persons, women and poor people are harmed the most - undermining the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

MDGs are eight goals that 194 UN member states have agreed to make strides to achieve by the year 2015. They encompass poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women.

When people say that tobacco is good for the economy, it's certainly not good for the people that actually work the land, never mind the smokers.

Tobacco farming needlessly exploits women and children.

Farm workers on resettled farms are paid very low wages, inadequate to cover their basic needs, said Gift Muti, secretary-general of General Agriculture and Plantation Workers' Union of Zimbabwe.

"It is sad to note that workers on the farms are not employed on a permanent basis. These are mainly women and children from poor backgrounds. They are hired as and when the need arises. Most farmers pay between $2 and $3 for eight hours of hard labour for either cultivating or applying chemicals in the fields. This is a far cry from the agreed poverty datum line of around $520," Muti said.

"Children from poor households are frequently employed in tobacco farming to provide family income.

These children are especially vulnerable to "green tobacco sickness", which is caused by the nicotine that is absorbed through the skin from the handling of wet tobacco leaves," states WHO.

"We should combine efforts towards complying with the provisions set forth in such international child rights instruments like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, said Health and Child Care Minister Dr David Parirenyatwa.

"It is sad to note that Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of children orphaned by AIDS, as well as the highest incidence of child labour, child mortality and malnutrition among other such worst indicators in the world.

"Some may ask 'according to whose standards?'

The task at hand therefore is to come up with solutions that best suit the unique situations of African children, at the same time upholding the fundamental children's rights principles," adds Dr Parirenyatwa.

The writer is a doctor and an international health columnist that works in collaboration with the World Health Organisation's goals of disease prevention and control. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.

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