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Tobacco epidemic, biggest public health challenge faced globally – WHO

by Haruna Gimba

By Asmau Ahmad

The World Health Organisation (WHO) described the prevailing tobacco epidemic as one of the biggest public health challenges the world has ever faced, noting that annually, it kills over eight million people globally.

WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said this in her message to commemorate the ‘World No Tobacco Day,’ which is celebrated every May 31.

She said that the world health body joined the rest of the international community to commemorate the 2023 event with the theme, ‘Grow food, not tobacco.’

Dr Moeti said that the theme aimed at raising awareness about alternative crop production and marketing opportunities for tobacco farmers and encouraging them to grow sustainable, nutritious crops.

According to her, the theme also seeks to expose the tobacco industry’s efforts to interfere with attempts to substitute tobacco growing with sustainable crops, thereby worsening the global food crisis.

“It calls on all of us to explore how food and agricultural policies make adequate nutritious food and healthy diets available while reducing tobacco production,’’ she added.

According to her, Africa is experiencing an increase, noting that for instance, the number of adult smokers increased in the WHO African Region from an estimated 64 million in 2000 to 73 million in 2018.

“The tobacco industry’s strong marketing campaigns and increased tobacco product production are also contributing factors to this,” she said.

Moeti appealed to tobacco-growing countries in the Africa Region to step up the implementation of Articles 17 and 18 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).

According to her, such can be done by enacting legislation, developing, and implementing suitable policies and strategies, and enabling market conditions for tobacco farmers to shift to growing food crops.

She said such would also help their families with a better life while enhancing the protection of the environment and the health of people.

“With such action, we will be growing food, which our populations need, not tobacco,” Moeti added.

According to her, the commemoration provides the opportunity to highlight the dangers associated with tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke.

Moeti said it was also an occasion to renew advocacy for effective policies to halt the tobacco epidemic and its impact on individuals, societies, and nations.

She said that tobacco growing and production exacerbates nutrition and food insecurity.

“Tobacco farming destroys the ecosystems, depletes soils of fertility, contaminates water bodies and pollutes the environment.

“Any profits to be gained from tobacco as a cash crop may not offset the damage done to sustainable food production in low- and middle-income countries.

“Nearly 828 million people are facing hunger globally. Of these, 278 million (20 per cent are in Africa.

“In addition, 57.9 per cent of people in Africa suffer from moderate to severe food insecurity,” she said.

Moeti said that such action would jeopardise the region’s attainment of SDG 2, which aims to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

She said that the intensification of the major drivers behind recent food insecurity and malnutrition trends, such as conflict, climate extremities, and economic shocks, further compounds the situation.

According to her, concerted actions are essential, so everyone will have enough food.

She said the Africa faced a grave challenge in food and nutrition security imposed by the increasing tobacco farming in the region.

According to her, available data shows that while the area under tobacco cultivation decreased by 15.7 per cent globally in Africa it increased by 3.4 per cent from 2012 to 2018.

“During this period, tobacco leaf production globally reduced by 13.9 per cent however, it increased by 10.6 per cent in Africa.

“In recent years, tobacco cultivation has shifted to Africa because of a regulatory environment that is more favourable to the tobacco industry with increasing demand for tobacco.

“WHO is working with Member States and other partners to assist farmers in shifting from tobacco growing to alternative crops.

“In the last two years, an initiative in Kenya has assisted over 2000 tobacco farmers to turn to alternative crops.

“This has resulted in improved food and nutrition security, increased income for farmers, healthier farming activities as well as environmental rehabilitation,’’ she said.

Moeti noted that expansion of such initiative should be encouraged for all tobacco-growing countries in Africa.

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