FCTC ratification: a threat to Pakistan’s tobacco economy?

Valle de Vinales, CUBA - 17 February 2015: Unidentified Men working on Cuba tobacco plantation.Traditional techniques are still in use for agricultural production, particularly of tobacco.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) convenes its tenth Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in Panama, Pakistani tobacco growers are watching with bated breath. The conference, which aims to reduce tobacco consumption and exposure globally, has caused unease among tobacco producers in Pakistan and other tobacco-growing nations such as Colombia, Panama, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

A significant protest by tobacco producers and workers has highlighted the concerns over the FCTC’s potential economic implications. Article 17 of the Convention requires parties to promote economically viable alternatives to tobacco. It states that “Parties shall, in cooperation with each other and with competent international and regional intergovernmental organizations, promote, as appropriate, economically viable alternatives for tobacco workers, growers and, as the case may be, individual sellers.”

Farmers denounced the “exclusion” and the “lack of transparency” in the WHO’s decisions about tobacco growing measures at the protest. They demand “respect for a tradition that dates back more than 500 years”. The concerns are also shared among tobacco growers in Pakistan as tobacco growing has been a backbone of the economy, historically generating a significant share of the export revenue. Growers in Pakistan fear that the FCTC ratification could be Pakistan’s economic suicide. However, they hope that Pakistan being part of the discussions will offer viable economic solutions as the livelihood of millions of families and the domestic economy will be impacted if tobacco production is terminated.

Fawad Khan, a spokesperson for Mustehkam Pakistan, an advocacy platform that safeguards the interests of marginalized and low-income communities, said in a statement that farmers primarily responsible for growing tobacco would resort to suicide if the FCTC continues to ratify its stance on tobacco. Pakistan’s tobacco sector currently contributes more than $1 billion in taxes, which the government desperately needs to manage its IMF arrangement.

“Grow Food, Not Tobacco” was the 2023 WHO’s World No Tobacco Day theme. There is growing recognition that diversifying away from tobacco farming can contribute to progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals in lower- and middle-income countries. However, diversification projects are often limited in scope and impact because structural barriers to tobacco diversification make it easier to challenge them.

Mushfiq Khan, a tobacco grower and Head of the All Pakistan Tobacco Farmer Association, also mentioned that the reduction of demand and supply of tobacco would cause a loss to the national exchequer and result in tobacco farmers resorting to criminal activities to make a living.

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