World No Tobacco Day 2023

World Health Organization (WHO) has declared 31st of May as the World No Tobacco Day (WNTD). This year the theme of the WNTD is “We need food, not tobacco”. The global campaign focuses on to raise awareness about alternative crop production and marketing opportunities for tobacco farmers and encourage them to grow sustainable, nutritious crops. Also, it aims to expose the tobacco industry’s efforts to interfere with attempts to substitute tobacco growing with sustainable crops.
Agriculture plays a major role in the economy of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan agricultural sector mainly produces rice, coconut and grain, largely for domestic consumption and occasionally for export. In 1952, Ceylon Tobacco Company (CTC) launched its tobacco cultivation programme in Sri Lanka. CTC is a subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT) that has a monopoly on cigarette manufacturing and distribution in Sri Lanka. Galewela, Polonnaruwa, Mahiyangana, Ududumbara, Haliela and Buttala have been reported as the major tobacco cultivating areas in Sri Lanka. According to the data from CTC annual report, tobacco production was 1,521 metric tons in 2022.
Tobacco cultivation leads to many adverse effects on tobacco farmers and the environment. The final outcome of tobacco cultivation is an addictive product which causes diseases and death, and also a range of social problems including poverty. Among the health problems related to tobacco farming, the most noteworthy are Green Tobacco sickness, respiratory and musculoskeletal problems, and mental disorders resulting from exposure to pesticides. Evidence also proves that long term tobacco farming causes irreversible reduction of soil fertility. As a result, the lands get degraded and farmers tend to move on to new virgin lands. It reduces the area of land which can be used to cultivate food crops. Deforestation is another harmful aspect of tobacco framing which cause the natural habitat destruction of different species of animals.
In 2016, HE President Maithripala Sirisena and the Minister of Health Rajitha Senarathne both publicly announced the government’s plan to eliminate tobacco cultivation by the year 2020. Ceylon Tobacco protested stating it disrupts farmers’ livelihoods. Media also reported objections from the tobacco farmers and barn owners on the government announcement to eliminate cultivation. CTC’s influence on policymakers is depicted in the media coverage it receives.
Ceylon Tobacco is actively engaged in tobacco cultivation process by adopting forward purchasing and materials on credit (seeds, agrochemicals and other equipment) mechanisms and promoting tobacco cultivation among farmers using diverse promotional and corporate social investment tactics. Sustainable Agriculture Development Programme (SADP) is the major social investment program conducted by the CTC from the year 2005. This programme is branched out to different varieties such as SADP mega, SADP Ultra, SADP Lite and receives wide positive coverage from the media.
We conducted a study in collaboration with Presidential Task Force on Drug Prevention in the five major tobacco cultivation districts in 2018. Our investigation on tobacco farming revealed that CTC engages farmers and farming communities via barn owners and farmer agents who coordinate their activities at the field level. Those two categories are portrayed as representatives of tobacco farmers in policy related issues and to showcase the benefits of tobacco cultivation, which is inaccurate and misleading. CTC’s material-on-credit approach engages farmers in a vicious cycle of credit and their forward-buying approach deflects a false sense of security. Farmers are not being empowered to assess their return on investment gauge and economic gain by the amount of money they receive after a harvest, leading to an inaccurate belief that tobacco cultivation generates high profits. CTC exploits this phenomenon by timing the payments with the Sri Lankan New Year celebrations. CTC also distributes gifts to farmers and officials of farmer organisations and conducts small community projects with high propaganda, portraying themselves as a ‘friend’ of the farming communities. Thus, farmers are coerced and manipulated into being trapped in a vicious cycle that is detrimental to their health and country’s wellbeing.
In the context of a nutrition and economical crisis, in which food security is an essential strategy, it’s time for Sri Lanka to seriously consider implementing the 2016 proposal to eliminate tobacco cultivation at least now, seven years after it being proposed. So that the land wasted on tobacco can be used for food production and farmers’ health and wellbeing can be preserved while improving nutrition of local communities. We need food! Not tobacco!