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WHO urges governments to stop subsidizing life-threatening tobacco crops

To mark World No Tobacco Day on 31 May, the World Health Organization (WHO) urges governments to stop subsidizing tobacco farming and support more sustainable crops that could feed millions.

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“Tobacco is used by more than 400 million people in the Western Pacific Region, and every year, 3 million of them are killed by this deadly product,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, Acting Regional Director for the Western Pacific. “When governments continue to prioritize business over health, ecosystems will be lost; people will go hungry; and health will decline.”

Millions of people in the Western Pacific face food insecurity. Meanwhile, more than 1 million hectares of land in the Region are used to grow tobacco. If this land were used to grow food instead, about 60 000 tonnes of fruits and vegetables could be grown, providing the recommended daily intake for more than 400 000 people a year. Or roughly 243 000 tonnes of rice could be produced, which would feed more than 3 million people a year.

Seven of the world’s top 50 tobacco growing countries are located in the Region: Cambodia, China, Japan, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea and Viet Nam. Tobacco farming exposes farmers and their families to toxic tobacco dust and chemical pesticides. Additionally, the environment suffers due to deforestation, contamination of water sources and degradation of soil.

A new WHO report entitled “Grow food, not tobacco” highlights the ills of tobacco growing and the benefits of switching to more sustainable food crops for farmers, communities, economies, the environment and the world at large. The report also exposes how the tobacco industry traps farmers in a vicious cycle of debt, propagating tobacco growing by exaggerating its economic benefits and lobbying through farming front groups.

Tobacco farming causes diseases to the farmers and more than 1 million child laborers around the world are estimated to be working on tobacco farms and missing out on education.

“Imagine if we used the same 1 million hectares to grow nutritious food. We could nourish millions of people, help children grow and develop, and support adults to reach their full potential,” said Dr Jakab. “It’s time to grow food, not tobacco.”

Tobacco growing is a global problem. Trees cut down for tobacco farming make up 5% of global deforestation – an area roughly the size of Samoa disappears every year. Experiences from countries in the Region such as Cambodia, Malaysia and the Philippines, have demonstrated that tobacco growers can shift from tobacco to economically viable alternative crops — such as vegetables, peanuts and mung beans—with appropriate government support and interventions.

Today, all Western Pacific countries are parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). They are committed to “promote economically “promote economically viable alternatives for tobacco workers and growers.” alternatives for tobacco workers and growers.” Ending subsidies for tobacco growing and supporting healthier crops would help countries fulfil that commitment.

By choosing to grow food instead of tobacco, countries can prioritize health, preserve ecosystems and increase food security.

Every year on World No Tobacco Day, people and institutions are honored for making a difference in tobacco control. This year, five awardees in the Western Pacific Region are being recognized for exceptional contributions to tobacco control: The Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports of Cambodia; The Ministry of Health and Medical Services, Revenue and Customs Services, and the Police Force of Fiji; The Cultural and Social Committee of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Senator Pilar Juliana “Pia” Schramm Cayetano of the Philippines; and the Ministry of Health of Vanuatu.

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