Comesa to petition UN on WHO tobacco ban

Monday September 20 2010

Tobacco farmers in Nyanza, Kenya. Comesa is arguing that World Health Organization has not offered alternatives to the crop. File Photo.

Tobacco farmers in Nyanza, Kenya. Comesa is arguing that World Health Organization has not offered alternatives to the crop. File Photo.  

By Julius Barigaba

The Common Market for Eastern and Southern African is opposed to the World Health Organisation’s attempts to push through a ban of ingredients used in producing blended tobacco.

These ingredients are laboratory produced compounds ranging from sweetners, sugars and flavours such as menthol, maltol and vanillin, used to improve the palatability of tobacco.

Burnley — a popular tobacco type in British American Tobacco markets (especially the US) is the most common type grown in the Comesa region — mainly in eastern and southern African countries of Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique — and which requires blending.

Scientists claim that smoke from burnley tobacco tends to have a harsh taste during curing, necessitating use of ingredients like glucose, menthol and ginger, or blending it with other types to tone down its character.

A ban of the manufacture of the blending compounds would mean a loss of market for Comesa-grown tobacco, and a loss for farmers.

At the recently concluded 14th Summit of Comesa in Swaziland, member countries resolved to petition the UN at the upcoming UN General Assembly to audit the Millennium Development Goals in New York.

The 19-member economic bloc argues that the WHO move is one of many by Western powers and international agencies to perpetuate poverty in Africa, using health arguments to edge its products — in this case tobacco — out of the global market. 

It is hoped that the bigger economies of the bloc such as Egypt, Libya and Kenya, despite not being major producers of tobacco, will play a role in influencing opinion to overturn this ban.
Guidelines 9 and 10, of WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) recommend a ban on laboratory-produced tobacco ingredients.  

For most of Comesa, whose member states are struggling to get out of poverty through agriculture, implementing the WHO guidelines would mean a loss of livelihood for many tobacco growers who have no immediate alternative, hence a crippling of national economies.  

Ironically, poverty reduction is top priority to achieving the MDGs, and no continent is more afflicted by poverty than Africa.  

“I am afraid it’s a very alarming situation for many countries, and hence the reason the 19 Comesa countries have united, and for the first time ever, decided to oppose the WHO,” said Francois van der Merwe, chairman of the African chapter of the International Tobacco Growers Association.

According to the association, part of the problem is that WHO officials in Geneva do not have a sufficient understanding of how important the tobacco industry is to many African countries, and the disastrous consequences its ban will have for many of these countries. 

Apart from hundreds of thousands of African tobacco-producing farmers being pushed out of business, the WHO has not sufficiently addressed viable agricultural alternatives.

“In fact, it’s ironic that as the UN General Assembly opens in New York, it will be debating the progress towards its Millennium Development Goals, one of which is poverty reduction. Banning tobacco production will have the complete reverse effect,” reads a letter from the association, rallying its Comesa allies.  

In Malawi for instance, 70 per cent of the population derives an income directly or indirectly from the tobacco industry — with 700,000 farmers involved in tobacco cultivation, generating at least 35 per cent of its grodd domestic product.

Uganda has 70,000 tobacco farmers, who generate $66 million per annum. Zimbabwe has 55,000 smallscale tobacco farmers.   

Besides guidelines 9 and 10, the Comesa Summit is also opposed to WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control guidelines 17 and 18 which are meant to outline alternative livelihoods for tobacco growers, which it says are based on wrong assumptions, without any provision for support mechanisms and diversification from tobacco growing.

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