Each year on May 31st the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nation’s public health agency, hosts World No Tobacco Day. The event highlights the “health risks associated with tobacco use” and lobbies governments to develop “policies to reduce tobacco consumption.”
There is no debate about the harm tobacco causes: About 5 million people die each year around the world from tobacco-related illnesses.
But tobacco comes with a silver lining that is hard to ignore. Tobacco production brings hope to some of the most desperately impoverished places on Earth.
About 270 dusty miles west of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, sits the town of Kaoma, home to Davison Tolopo. Getting to Tolopo’s farm from Lusaka requires a six hour drive past elephants wading in the Kafue River and baboons scouring trees for fruit.
Tolopo grows tobacco, along with maize and sweet potatoes. While his maize and sweet potato harvest brings in a few hundred dollars in a good year, his tobacco crop has changed his family’s life.
In an area where the average income barely tops $1,000 annually, Tolopo earned $5,600 last year from his tobacco harvest.
That extra income is crucial in Zambia, where families are forced to pay tuition if they want their children to have a proper education.
Students attend school free of charge through 7th grade. Beginning in the 8th grade, however, school costs 6,200 Zambian Kwacha — roughly $670 — per child per year. As a result, only 8 percent of Zambia’s population completes high school, and less than two-thirds of the country’s adults are literate.
Tolopo uses much of the money he earns from growing tobacco to send his kids to school. Of his seven children, four completed college. The other three are still in school.
“Children of maize farmers drop out of school and work in the fields.” Tolopo said. “Because of tobacco, I can pay adults to help me harvest my crops and pay for my children to go to school.”
Chief Chanje III, who presides over 300 villages near Chipata, in Zambia’s Eastern Province, says tobacco farming has transformed life for his subjects. “Boreholes [to provide clean drinking water], schools, clinics, solar panels for electricity and teachers are all possible because of growing tobacco.”
The WHO refuses to acknowledge the ways tobacco is revolutionizing life for farmers in developing nations such as Zambia. In fact, this year’s World No Tobacco Day theme is actually “Tobacco – a threat to development.”
The idea that tobacco somehow threatens development is laughable to Chief Chanje. “Without tobacco,” says Chief Chanje, “a lot of school children wouldn’t be able to go to school. A lot of people wouldn’t get health care. Tobacco is the only crop that allows us to survive.”
Still, the WHO is calling on countries to enact extreme measures like colossal cigarette tax hikes, packaging tobacco products in plain brown wrappers and even banning the sale of tobacco in order to dry up demand and force tobacco farmers like Tolopo to grow other crops.
“Farmers aren’t stupid,” said Chipata District Commissioner Kalunga Zulu. “If a farmer could make more growing something besides tobacco, he would grow that plant instead.”
According to Zula, it’s easy for bureaucrats who work for organizations like the WHO to “sit in Geneva or New York and tell us how to live, but they don’t understand the harm they can cause. We lack other options.”
Msamide Bands, a father of six who has farmed tobacco for nearly a decade in a small village outside of Chipata agreed. “We have no alternative crops that can compare to tobacco in terms of money.”
“To stop us from growing tobacco would be the same as just to kill us.”
While WHO officials claim that tobacco threatens development, the reality is getting rid of tobacco would be a far larger hazard.
If the agency is successful in destroying tobacco farming in places like Kaoma and Chipata, schools will close, health clinics will shutter, people will struggle to feed their families, and countless children will be forced to work the fields.
The UN and the WHO are right to be concerned about tobacco use and the dire effect smoking has on the health of millions of people across the globe. But tobacco control goals of sweeping bans, massive tax increases and stifling regulations not only threaten national sovereignty and individual rights, such policies would harm more people than they would help.
A world with no tobacco might sound appealing to nanny state bureaucrats at the WHO, but it sounds like hell to millions of thriving farmers like Davison Tolopo and his family.
Drew Johnson is a Senior Scholar at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.