Southern African Countries Battle to Save Own Tobacco Industry

Tobacco farming in Zimbabwe (file photo).
28 September 2019

A coalition of five Southern African countries met recently in Malawi to discuss ways to address the growing global anti-tobacco lobby which is imposing tighter regulations and heavy taxes on the golden leaf, a major source of export earnings for the countries.

The countries calling themselves - 'T5' - a grouping of tobacco industry stakeholders from Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe gathered in the Malawian capital, Lilongwe, to share experiences and explore strategies to save this strategic industry which is increasingly coming under threat.

"Delegates from these countries are meeting here in Malawi to discuss some of the challenges facing the leaf tobacco sector and to collectively find a way to address them in the most satisfactory way," Kondwani Nankhumwa, Malawi's minister of agriculture was quoted saying in the media.

"No-one forces people to smoke, as no-one forces farmers to grow tobacco. We need a plan of action. Sharing information is important to take the right decisions."

Most of the countries under the T5 coalition are increasingly finding it difficult to battle the anti-lobby campaign which are calling for the imposition of tighter regulations and heavy taxes on their tobacco industries - which are a major source of foreign currency and major employer.

Anti-tobacco regulations are tightening over public-place smoking, point-of-sale communication and display, graphic health warnings and plain packaging among other restrictions.

The tobacco industry is a complex web with various competing interest of both African and global multinational corporations. Multinationals still earn billions from tobacco produced by African countries.

"Government would continue informing and civic educating the consumer on the dangers of tobacco and its products thereby giving them the freedom of informed choice," said Nankhumwa.

"However, we will also be promoting tobacco production and protecting it from the negative effects of unbalanced and poorly informed tobacco control legislation adopted by countries which import our tobacco.

"We are therefore here to discuss some of the challenges facing the leaf tobacco sector and to collectively find a way to address them in the most satisfactory way. Sharing information is important to take the right decisions."

He said cooperation among members of the T5 coalition was vital.

"This cooperation among our governments gives us all the chance to exchange our opinions on how to address several challenges of the tobacco sector, and also to be heard more than if we spoke alone," the Malawian minister said.

"We have seen many good results of our efforts. Finding time to discuss among each other and to be fully informed of the challenges ahead of us is not easy but we can make it, and we have made it."

Despite a drought that ravaged Zimbabwe in the 2018/19 cropping season, the country still managed to produce a record-breaking tobacco output, reaching an all time high of 258 million tonnes.

This year's output is higher than the previous record of 252.5 million kilograms recorded in the 2017/18 farming season.

Tobacco is a major cash-cow for Zimbabwe and it generates an average US$1 billion annually helping the country to import fuel, pharmaceuticals and other key industrial raw materials.

Burley leaf from Malawi makes up 6.6 percent of the world's tobacco exports and accounts for over 70 percent of Malawi's foreign earnings.

Tobacco sales generate US$165 million per year for Malawi, with tobacco making up 53 percent of the country's exports.

Last year, Zambia produced 31 million kilograms of tobacco while production of tobacco declined from 105 million kilograms in the 2013/2014 period to less 50,5 million kilograms in 2017/2018 owing largely to low demand of the commodity in international markets following anti-tobacco global campaigns.

Mozambique produces nearly 100 000 metric tons of tobacco a year. Tobacco growing makes up a small fraction of agriculture in Mozambique, with only 0,15% of agricultural land devoted to tobacco cultivation.

China is a major buyer of tobacco produced in these five countries which are aiming to boost tobacco production in the short-term despite the intensity of the anti-tobacco lobby campaigns.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been spearheading the anti-tobacco lobby estimating that smoking tobacco kills about 6 million people around the world every year.

It argues that the tobacco industry is a major obstacle in the global drive to stop people dying early from cancer and heart diseases.

But despite the intense anti-tobacco campaigns over the last few decades, the tobacco industry continues to survive almost unabated, surviving wave after wave of public legislation, from plain packaging to increased taxation.

"Everyone can make the choices which are the most appropriate for themselves," said Nankhumwa.

"As a government of Malawi, we will continue promoting tobacco production and protecting it from the negative effects of unbalanced and poorly informed tobacco control legislation adopted by countries which import our tobacco."

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