Hope springs eternal for tobacco farmers

Sunday Mail Reporter

Tobacco, a high-value cash crop, has been regularly bringing good cheer to farming communities around Zimbabwe, not least the more than 100 000 farmers who were resettled at the turn of the millennium.

By July 3 this year, local farmers had pocketed US$258 million from selling 110 million kilogrammes of the golden leaf, which is US$56 million more than the money that had been earned over the comparable period last year.

However, lobbyists and health authorities, especially the World Health Organisation (WHO), have been pushing for production to be scaled back or for the crop to be replaced with alternative cash crops owing to the health risks of smoking tobacco.

Major producers such as Zimbabwe – which is the largest producer of leaf tobacco on the continent and the fourth-largest producer of flue-cured tobacco in the world after China, Brazil and the United States – have been increasingly conflicted by the need to fight non-communicable disease caused by smoking and keeping the lucrative industry going.

Yet this conundrum is increasingly being solved by the emergence of new technologies that eliminate the smoking of tobacco and make its consumption significantly safer.

Perhaps the latest most significant breakthrough has been by the Global industrial behemoth Philip Morris International (PMI), whose new product IQOS – which has an electronically heated tobacco system – was authorised for marketing as a modified risk tobacco product (MRTP) by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on July 7, 2020.

Most importantly, after a 43-month rigorous examination, the FDA concluded that the IQOS system – which “heats tobacco but does not burn it” – “significantly reduces the production of harmful and potentially harmful chemicals that are emitted from smoke when tobacco is actually burned”.

Essentially, the system operates on the heat-not-burn technology that provides smokers with the nicotine whilst markedly reducing the health risks that are associated with the combustion of cigarettes.

The same conclusion has been reached in countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and The Netherlands.

It is these harm-reduction technologies that could help make tobacco farming sustainable for tobacco farmers in Zimbabwe in the medium to long term.

PMI’s chief executive officer André Calantzopoulos said: “Now — more than ever — there is an urgent need for a fundamentally different conversation on a cooperative approach to achieve a smoke-free future.

“The FDA’s decision provides an important example of how governments and public health organisations can regulate smoke-free alternatives to differentiate them from cigarettes in order to promote the public health.”

It is believed that 10,6 million smokers around the world have already stopped smoking and switched to IQOS.

PMI is a leading international tobacco company engaged in the manufacture and sale of cigarettes, as well as smoke-free products and associated electronic devices and accessories, and other nicotine-containing products in markets outside the United States.

Tobacco farmers have been living under the spectre of a ban on the cash crop, especially after the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) became the first treaty negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organisation in 2005.

In particular, Articles 9 and 10 of the FCTC deal with governing the contents of tobacco products and tobacco product disclosures respectively, while Articles 17 and 18 deal with the provision of support for economically viable alternatives and the protection of the environment and health of persons, respectively.

While Government wants to eradicate “lifestyle” or non-communicable diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease and cancer that in some cases can be directly related to the smoking, it however feels compelled to defend a sector that is directly and indirectly positively impacting the lives of more than six million Zimbabweans – close to half of the local population.

All these provide employment to multitudes of locals.

Innovation in the form of technologies such as PMI’s IQOS, therefore, provide a glimmer of hope that there could be a viable and sustainable future for the industry.

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