Grow food, not tobacco

May 28, 2023

Rising food insecurity can be managed by encouraging tobacco farmers to grow food crops

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n May 31, the World Health Organisation and public health champions worldwide will come together to celebrate the World No Tobacco Day. The 2023 global campaign aims to raise awareness about alternative crop production and marketing opportunities for tobacco farmers and encourage them to grow sustainable, nutritious crops. It will also aim to expose the tobacco industry’s efforts to delay the attempts to substitute tobacco growing with sustainable crops, thereby contributing to the global food crisis. This year’s World No Tobacco Day theme is “We need food, not tobacco.”

Across the globe, around 3.5 million hectares of land are used for tobacco growing each year. Growing tobacco also contributes to the deforestation of 200,000 hectares a year. Tobacco growing is resource intensive and requires heavy use of pesticides and fertilisers, contributing to soil degradation. Compared to other agricultural activities such as growing maize and livestock grazing, tobacco farming has a far more destructive impact on ecosystems as tobacco farmlands are more prone to desertification.

Land used to grow tobacco could be efficiently used to achieve United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2: zero hunger.

Over 600,000 trees are chopped down every year to make cigarettes, 84,000,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere due to cigarettes, and 22,000,000 tonnes of water is also used to make cigarettes.

Conflicts and wars, climatic shocks and the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic are driving the growing food crisis. Structural causes like crop choice also have an impact. A look into tobacco growing reveals how it contributes to increased food insecurity.

942 million men and 175 million women aged 15 or older smoke tobacco globally. Tobacco kills more than 8 million people each year. More than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use, while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke, reported by the World Health Organisation’s new global report on Trends in Prevalence of Tobacco Smoking 2000-2025.

Unfortunately, there has been an increase in tobacco consumption in low- and lower middle-income countries. Almost 80 percent of the world’s smokers live in these countries.

Tobacco use is a leading cause of preventable death worldwide. It kills up to half of its users. According to the World Health Organisation, smoking is associated with several health problems, including lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and respiratory illnesses. Smoking also harms the environment and contributes to climate change.

According to the World Health Organisation, tobacco use is still one of the biggest challenges faced in public health in Pakistan. As the largest preventable risk factor for four major non-communicable diseases (cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic lung disease), tobacco use contributes greatly to rising healthcare costs and the loss of economic productivity. Tobacco kills over 163,600 people each year in Pakistan. Almost 31,000 of these deaths are due to exposure to second-hand smoke. Overall, 10.9 percent of all deaths are caused by tobacco.

Tobacco kills over 163,600 people in Pakistan every year. Almost 31,000 of these deaths are due to exposure to second-hand smoke. Overall, 10.9 percent of all deaths are caused by tobacco.

The age-standardised prevalence of tobacco use in Pakistan was found to be 13.4 percent. Tobacco use in urban areas was 16.3 percent and in rural areas 11.7 percent. Tobacco use in urban and rural males was 26.1 percent and 24.1 percent, in females it was 7.7 and 3.1 percent, respectively.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is a legally binding treaty that requires countries bound by the treaty to implement evidence-based measures to reduce tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke. There are 182 signatories to the FCTC, including Pakistan. To protect the public’s health and well-being in Pakistan, tobacco use as a contributing factor to morbidity and mortality will require a strong commitment to high-level achievement, including implementation and enforcement of FCTC.

Fighting tobacco use in Pakistan will require a strong commitment to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) and the related MPOWER strategies. These are proven strategies that can help avert unnecessary illness and death.

The WHO is working closely with the government of Pakistan to curb tobacco use in the country. Despite the powerful presence of the tobacco industry, two major milestones were achieved in the country, including the Prohibition of Smoking and Protection of Non-smokers Health Ordinance-2002 and the Ratification of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Key achievements in this regard include Notified Pictorial Health Warning of 85 percent size on both sides of cigarette packs and outers, a ban on smoking in places of public work and in public vehicles, a ban on the sale of cigarettes to minors and a ban on tobacco advertisements in print and electronic media (through billboards, posters or banners affixed outside shop, kiosks or mobile trolleys etc.)

The WHO looks forward to developing an evidence-based plan of action for tobacco control in Pakistan that will pave the way to accelerating the implementation of the WHO FCTC and achieving the global target of a 30 percent reduction in the prevalence of current tobacco use in persons aged 15 years and over.

Pakistan has more young people now than it has ever had, and growth in the number is forecast to continue until at least 2050. This is a potential growing market for cigarettes. The growing popularity, cultural and social acceptability of water-pipe smoking among young people has led to a rapid increase in the number of shisha cafes in Pakistan. This is more dangerous than smoking cigarettes. Campaigns should be launched to increase public awareness regarding the devastating effects of tobacco use on health. These campaigns should also focus on the hitherto untouched aspects, such as second-hand smoke. It must be ensured that no media representations of tobacco consumption are funded by tobacco companies.

On this day, government authorities and policy-makers need to frame and implement suitable policies and strategies and enable market conditions for tobacco farmers by switching them to growing food crops. In addition, green activists and public social welfare associations must join hands to promote the efforts to stop growing tobacco crops.

The writer is a playwright and freelance journalist. He can be reached at and his blogging site:

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