The adoption of the World Health Organisation’s ( WHO’s) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is regarded as a significant step in setting up an international regulatory framework aimed at protecting present and future generations from adverse effects of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke.

However, while the FCTC was not originally aimed at banning or prohibiting tobacco consumption or production, its provisions could be implemented in a way that imperils the tobacco growing and tobacco dependent economies of Africa with dire implications for the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on this crop.

The importance of the tobacco industry in southern Africa, for instance, can hardly be overemphasised.

Zimbabwe has about 75 000 tobacco growers or farmers and is the largest employer in the agricultural sector with about 415 000 people employed on the farms and in the industry side (leaf companies, auction floors etc.) and a minimum of about 2 million people are directly dependent on tobacco.

Tobacco contributes about 12 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and 27 percent of foreign currency earnings. Malawi has about 350 000 tobacco growers with about 800 000 people employed and more than 2 million people directly dependant on tobacco. The tobacco industry contributes about 60 percent of foreign exchange earnings in Malawi.

Importantly, more than 95 percent of tobacco grown in African countries such as Malawi and Zimbabwe is for export, only an insignificant amount is consumed locally. Therefore, any radical demand reduction measures would have a direct negative impact on the prices fetched by tobacco growers and ultimately deal a potential death blow to tobacco growing.

For an undeveloped, poverty-stricken country like Malawi whose economy is heavily reliant on tobacco growing and export, this would be a disaster of gargantuan proportions. It could also have destabilising regional implications should radical demand reductions result in a downward economic spiral in the country.

While it seems theoretically possible for alternatives to tobacco growing to be found and promote a move away from dependence on tobacco growing and trade, in practice, tobacco growing in some countries such as Malawi is so important to the economy such that even policymakers, based on sound research, have simply concluded that there are no viable alternative crops to tobacco growing.

In Malawi, while the government is considering other crops (such as soya beans) to lessen dependence on tobacco growing, such crops are simply regarded as potentially “complementary” crops and not as alternatives.

The same goes for Zimbabwe, where the several stakeholders are unanimous that at present, there are simply no alternatives to tobacco.

It is worth noting that the FCTC provisions are not inherently antithetical to the interests of tobacco growing and tobacco products’ exporting countries, per se. Indeed, there are significant issues where there is apparent common ground between the objectives of the FCTC and the interests of the tobacco growing countries in Africa, such as the need to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products (ITTP) by securing the tobacco supply chain; and ensuring that non-smokers are not exposed to tobacco smoke; among others.

Should the WHO, through the FCTC, adopt measures as currently being proposed, to promote “carve outs” of tobacco products from trade liberalisation and investment protection agreements, the impact thereof could be disastrous for many tobacco growers in southern Africa whose income depends on successful exports to international markets.

In respect of tobacco “carve outs” from trade and investment agreements, apart from the legalities or political economic implications, it is debatable whether such an approach is necessary at all.

At a multilateral level, the WHO allows its member states to impose measures to promote human health provided such measures are non-discriminatory and necessary to achieve the stated objectives. Where bilateral investment treaties are concerned, two recent cases where Phillip Morris lost investment disputes regarding government measures to promote public health indicate that arbitration tribunals do recognise the host state’s right to regulate in the public interest (Phillip Morris v Uruguay and Phillip Morris v Australia).

The findings in the two disputes suggest that legitimate regulations to promote public health in respect of tobacco products are not so threatened so as to require the implementation of radical proposals in order to give effect to them.

While it is trite that tobacco use is a public health challenge, it must also be borne in mind that the tobacco industry does make important positive contributions to certain tobacco growing countries.

Therefore, measures to discourage consumption in export markets must be taken with proper consideration of potentially bigger socio-economic challenges in certain countries that depend on growing tobacco primarily for export, presumably to informed consumers in high income and some middle-income countries.

Measures to “clean up” the tobacco industry or tobacco value chain such as the elimination of ITTP, appropriate health warnings on cigarette packs; age limits on who can purchase tobacco products; among others, are laudable.

However, a balance is required and the FCTC member states must ensure that in their noble zeal to promote public health they do not adopt measures that are tantamount to throwing away the baby with the bath water, resulting in disproportionate impacts on poor countries with very few alternatives to tobacco production. Nkululeko Khumalo, a senior associate at Tutwa Consulting, is one of the authors of the forthcoming paper by the Tutwa Consulting group which inter alia examines the socioeconomic impact of tobacco growing and implications of the emerging global regulatory environment on the tobacco economies of southern Africa.