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ZFE urges a balanced position between addressing health, economic issues of tobacco

EVERYONE, by now, knows that tobacco is harmful to life.

Actually, it is even hackneyed to see a pack of cigarettes, or an umbrella under which tobacco cigarettes are sold, written ‘tobacco is harmful.’

Smoking is a choice that someone freely makes, and in this case, we mean an adult person.

It’s not like someone is being forced to smoke, neither can they starve to death if they don’t smoke.

Nonetheless, the Ministry of Health has come up with the tobacco control bill of 2020. But it is worth noting that there are other ministries like the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Finance that have reservations regarding enacting the tobacco control bill, without broad thinking.

The objects of this contentious bill are to (a) declare tobacco product, tobacco device, nicotine product or nicotine device as a restricted product, (b) provide for the protection of present and future generations from the devastating, health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco use, nicotine addiction, and exposure to the harmful emissions of tobacco products, tobacco devices, nicotine products or nicotine devices, (c) prevent the initiation, continually and substantially reduce the use of tobacco product, tobacco device, nicotine product or nicotine device, and encourage quitting, (d) domesticate the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and (e) provide for matters incidental to, and in connection with, the foregoing.

The bill is signed by Attorney General Likando Kalaluka.

Without much thought, one can give thumbs up to this bill.

But enacting a bill like this one into law will certainly result into economic implications, some devastating.

To start with, imprecise statistics show that in Zambia, about 18,000 farmers (farm households), consisting of 17,800 small-scale farmers and about 200 commercial farmers grow tobacco.

The popular places where tobacco is grown in Zambia are Nkeyema and Kaoma districts of Western Province, Kalomo in Southern Province and Chipata in Eastern Province.

For your own information, the number of smokers in Zambia is, by far, less than the number of people who earn a living through tobacco farming.

To contextualise the issue of tobacco and the desire by governments to ban it, here is a brief background to the matter.

Around 2008, the World Health Organisation (WHO) came up with a position that tobacco, being harmful, must not be encouraged to be a commodity on the market and that it should be banned.

WHO came up with a protocol which they want member States to ratify so that tobacco can completely be done away with in the world.

From a health standpoint, it is simple to justify the negative aspects of smoking tobacco.

Zambia, being one of the member states of the WHO, through the Ministry of Health, did ratify that commitment on banning tobacco.

With the tobacco control bill fully drafted now, it is certain that the government of Zambia is committed to moving towards banning the tobacco business.

But other stakeholders like the Zambia Federation of Employers (ZFE) are cautious, and want wider consultations, before any step can be taken on restricting the cultivation or importation of tobacco.

ZFE executive director Harrington Chibanda shares his organisation’s thoughts around the issue of the tobacco control bill.

“The disappointing aspect in that ratification of that protocol (to control tobacco) was that the Ministry of Health did not conduct a national consultation process to get the views of the other stakeholders,” Chibanda says. “Now, because of that ratification of the protocol, the government is now found in a situation that they have to domesticate that protocol, hence the current bill on the control of tobacco and nicotine. When you read the bill in its current form, it’s talking of completely banning tobacco.”

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, has over 180 member States and at one time, the topic of tobacco came up in the international labour conference.

Expectedly, a position was taken by the unions, employers and governments.

The consensus was that much as they see something in what the WHO is saying on banning tobacco, there is an economic aspect – employment creation for so many people the world-over who rely on tobacco.

Then, the statistics were that there were about 40 million people in the world who were earning a living on tobacco.

So, obviously the question which has to be asked is ‘if tobacco was to be banned, what will be the source of income for those 40 million people world-over?’

According to Chibanda, national federation of employers from the 182 ILO member States, 182 governments who are members of the ILO and trade unions from the 182 member States, made a decision.

They agreed that before coming to a point of banning tobacco, there is need to have alternative mechanisms to be put in place so that those people whose lives depend on tobacco are not pushed into an abyss of poverty.

Unquestionably, such people should be given alternative means of survival but that cannot be a process a government, or anybody, can just do overnight.

Coming to the tobacco situation in Zambia, Chibanda argues that: “I don’t think we even have a lot of people who smoke.”

“The numbers are not worrying. Yes, there are people who smoke. But when you look at the numbers of people earning a living on cultivation of tobacco, they are quite many,” he notes.

“The mistake that is being made is that those who are championing the banning of tobacco are looking at it from the aspect of multinationals who are in the business of tobacco – that they are capitalists and they are benefiting. But they are not looking at it from the point of our own Zambian families who, for so many years, have been tobacco farmers.”

Chibanda explains that there are many tobacco farmers who are taking their children to school through the income they are raise from sale of tobacco.

“No one has even gone to them to ask those families if they have any alternative source of income, if tobacco was to be banned today,” Chibanda says. “People are having workshops in Lusaka and saying ‘yes, tobacco is harmful. Let’s ban it.’ [But] they’ve not gone to that farmer in Kaoma, in Nkeyema, in Chipata, in Kalomo to ask them.”

He adds that the ZFE has been to Nkeyema and: “we’ve seen the huge tobacco farms.”

“We’ve seen how those people there are benefiting in tobacco farming. These are Zambians! So, what we are saying as ZFE is that let’s not be in a hurry,” Chibanda advises. “If you are coming up with a law to control tobacco or nicotine, let’s take a balanced position between addressing the health and economic issues.”

He further notes the need to establish the exact numbers of Zambians who earn a living on tobacco farming.

Chibanda also says that when one looks at the Seventh National Development Plan (7NDP) where agriculture has been prioritised as a sector for employment creation, they will realise that one of the crops which is hyped for cultivation is tobacco.

“Tobacco is an income generator and so far, there are so many Zambians who are earning a living on tobacco,” says Chibanda. “So, we cannot just wake up and say ‘let’s do away with tobacco.’ That will be pushing so many people into poverty, and so many children, who are in school, out of school, because their parents will have no other source of income. We need a gradual approach.”

Available statistics show that poverty levels on the Copperbelt are at 30.9 per cent, Western Province at 82.2 per cent, 81.1per cent in Luapula Province, 79.7 per cent in Northern Province, 70 per cent in Eastern Province, 69.3 per cent in Muchinga Province, 66.4 per cent in North-Western Province, 57.6 per cent in Southern Province, 56.2 per cent in Central Province and 20.2 per cent in Lusaka Province.

These are damning figures and so, any activity that helps to reduce poverty among people should be harnessed. Cultivation of tobacco, for years now, has proved to be one such activity. The right thing must be done!

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