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Tobacco Trade and Farming is Impeding the Achievement of SDGs

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The JA PreventNCD initiative addresses the significant burden of cancer and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Europe. This initiative aims to support strategies and policies that reduce the prevalence of these diseases by focusing on both personal and societal risk factors. One key aspect of this project is the Health in All Policies Work Package, which integrates health considerations into policymaking across various sectors.

Within this work package, a specific task focuses on alcohol and tobacco-related perspectives in relation to agricultural and trade policies. This task is crucial for understanding why it’s essential to implement evidence-based policies to prevent and reduce the harm caused by tobacco use and trade. Tobacco trade and farming pose serious threats to public health and impede progress toward many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). By advocating Health in All Policies, JA PreventNCD aims to develop a holistic strategy to mitigate the adverse impacts of tobacco globally and promote sustainable development.

Tobacco Trade and Farming is Impeding the Achievement of SDGs

The EU aims to use its trade agreements as tools to pursue sustainable development and encourage trading partners to uphold and improve environmental and human rights standards in their own countries as well as to mitigate climate change globally. However, this is not true concerning the liberalization of trade in tobacco products.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), across the globe, around 3.5 million hectares of land are converted for tobacco growing each year. Growing tobacco also contributes to deforestation of 200,000 hectares per year.1

Tobacco farming, production, consumption, and use are detrimental to both the surrounding environment as well as the health of farmers and tobacco users. With an annual greenhouse gas contribution of 84 megatons carbon dioxide equivalent, the tobacco industry contributes to climate change and reducing climate resilience, wasting resources, and damaging ecosystems.2

Free trade of tobacco is causing deforestation

Currently, most of the tobacco products are imported into the EU market with zero tariffs and without quota restrictions through free trade agreements as well as trade preferences granted to developing and least developed countries.3 For example, concerning the free trade area between the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, tobacco products can enter the EU market without paying tariffs or duties via the Economic Partnership Agreements. The Everything but Arms (EBA) scheme removes tariffs and quotas for the imports of all tobacco products coming into the EU from the least developed countries.

EU member countries have not ratified the agreement with the Mercosur countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) due to environmental concerns related to the deforestation of Brazilian rainforests. The destruction of rainforests is one of the driving forces to enact the EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) — EU’s new regulation to curb EU market’s impact on global deforestation and forest degradation. The EUDR requires companies trading in cattle, cocoa, coffee, oil palm, rubber, soya, and wood to conduct extensive due diligence on the value chain to ensure the goods do not result from recent deforestation (post 31 December 2020), forest degradation or breaches of local environmental and social laws.4 

Tobacco is also grown as a cash crop in more than 125 countries and is a major cause for deforestation. The EU is partly responsible for the deforestation as a major consumer and trader of tobacco products. EU member countries are major exporters and importers of tobacco products in the world.5 Why is tobacco not included in list of products under the EUDR?

All forms of tobacco use are harmful

According to the WHO, the tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced, killing over 8 million people a year around the world. More than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.3 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.6

All forms of tobacco use are harmful, and there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco. Cigarette smoking is the most common form of tobacco use worldwide. Around 80% of the 1.3 billion tobacco users worldwide live in low- and middle-income countries, where the burden of tobacco-related illness and death is heaviest.6

Tobacco use contributes to poverty by diverting household spending from basic needs such as food and shelter to tobacco. This spending behaviour is difficult to curb because tobacco is so addictive. The economic costs of tobacco use are substantial and include significant health care costs for treating the diseases caused by tobacco use as well as the lost human capital that results from tobacco-attributable morbidity and mortality.6

Tobacco growing has numerous negative impacts in Africa

With increasing tobacco controls in the developed world, Africa can be seen as the last frontier for the tobacco industry. Smoking prevalence here is still not high. Without effective tobacco control regulations, the market potential in Africa for the tobacco industry can be immense.7

Low labour cost, as well as the right climate conditions, make these African countries easy prey for the tobacco companies. The tobacco control community must be vigilant in this fight for Africa. There are numerous negative effects of tobacco growing in Africa on farmers’ income, child labour, gender, and food & nutrition security.7

Many tobacco farmers in Africa make very low profits or farmers are highly indebted because the price of tobacco leaf is low and mainly controlled by the tobacco industry through a stringent leaf grading system.7  

Malawi has the highest occurrence of child labour with 78,000 children who work on tobacco estates, for long hours, with low pay and without protective clothing. In Uganda, tobacco growing communities have their children failing to start school, where 4 out of 10 boys never go to school and 6 out of every 10 girls never go to school because they have to provide labour to the tobacco farms all year round.8

Women and children are the main source of labour for tobacco growing, mostly done by hand, without any protective wear. Tobacco farming in Africa mainly survives on family labour, where women and children provide most of the labour to minimize costs because tobacco farming requires an average of 18 hours per farmer per day. The International Labour Organization revealed that children working on tobacco plantations/farms in Tanzania did not get adequate food, whereby out of 100 working children in the tobacco growing districts, only 19% had meals three times a day.8

Tobacco products should be excluded from the commitments of trade liberalization

Overall, international trade of tobacco products and tobacco farming in Africa is impeding the achievement of many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)9 — SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being), SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 5 (Gender Equality), SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG 13 (Climate Action), and SDG 15 (Life on Land). Therefore, trade preferences, bilateral and free trade agreements could positively contribute to the attainment of the SDGs together with tobacco control by excluding tobacco products from the commitments of trade liberalization. Tobacco must be included in list of products under the EUDR to mitigate climate change globally as well as to uphold and improve environmental and human rights standards, especially in Africa with the fastest growing population in the world.

Author: Ellen Huan-Niemi, Senior Scientist, Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke)


1 Geist, H.J. 1999. Global assessment of deforestation related to tobacco farming. Tobacco Control, 8:18–28. https://doi.org/10.1136/tc.8.1.18

2 WHO 2022. Tobacco is poisoning our planet #TobaccoExposed, Tobacco Free initiative. World Health Organization. Available at https://www.emro.who.int/tfi/news/tobacco-is-poisoning-our-planet-tobaccoexposed.html

3 EU Customs Tariff Database. Available at https://ec.europa.eu/taxation_customs/dds2/taric/taric_consultation.jsp?Lang=en

4 EU Regulation 2023/1115 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 31 May 2023

5 World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS) Database. Available at https://wits.worldbank.org/trade/comtrade/en/country/ALL/year/2021/tradeflow/Imports/partner/WLD/product/240220 (top importing countries)
https://wits.worldbank.org/trade/comtrade/en/country/ALL/year/2021/tradeflow/Exports/partner/WLD/product/240220 (top exporting countries)

6 WHO 2023. Key Facts, Tobacco. World Health Organization. Available at https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/tobacco

7 Hu, T.W. & Lee, A.H. 2015. Commentary: Tobacco control and tobacco farming in African countries. J Public Health Policy, 36(1): 41-51. https://doi.org/10.1057/jphp.2014.47

8 Center For Tobacco Control in Africa

9 The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Available at https://sdgs.un.org/goals