As the world commemorates No Tobacco Day, Africa’s largest producer Zimbabwe faces a dilemma in reducing its output.
Tobacco is one of the biggest foreign currency earners, contributing close to half of earnings and supporting close to a hundred thousand families, but the medical profession says it is seeing an increase in the number of people succumbing to cancer as a result of smoking.
Bernard Sweeper, a tobacco farmer, delivers his crop to the auction floors as the world celebrates No Tobacco Day. This crop has been his livelihood for the last 8 years. He is concerned about the impact that the No Tobacco Campaign will have on his ability to earn a decent living.
“This campaign will degrade our quality of life. We have been slowly improving ourselves by growing this crop and hope our lives will be even better in the future because of it. We would love to produce food, but it doesn’t pay the bills- Tobacco gives us foreign currency and improve our lives,” Sweeper said.
Last year he says he made $7800 as a tobacco farmer. It’s almost double the average wage for the minority who have jobs in this country. It’s why the world has had difficulty persuading Zimbabweans that tobacco is bad.
Another farmer Pamureka Manyura says prices are down this year but tobacco provides the only hope to put children through school and put food on the table.
The No Tobacco Day Campaign aims to reduce tobacco consumption and production. It argues that the impact on health, the environment and the economy is devastating.
But in Zimbabwe, tobacco brings in about half of the country’s export earnings. A vast informal industry has developed around the tobacco sector and at least 90 000 families are directly dependent on its production for their sustenance.
But an even bigger dilemma exists, tobacco earnings indirectly finance part of the health budget.
“The contribution of tobacco is significant enough so that it would be missed in terms of funding social services,” says Rutendo Bonde, Chairperson Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights.
The Doctors for Human Rights says the prevalence of cancer is increasing in the country, but commend authorities for implementing measures that warn consumers about the dangers of smoking.
“The deleterious effects of smoking, I think we have progressed quite significantly as a country , and it’s a positive but as we will be able to go the next milestone which is the more aggressive kind of lobbying, I wait to see that unfolding with curiosity,” says Bonde.
Local lobby groups see a greater danger believing reliance on tobacco is not sustainable in the long term. Most of the country’s tobacco is consumed abroad in China and Europe. And increasing restrictions abroad could mean that one day; farmers will be stuck with a product that the world no longer wants.