The supply of tobacco remains a pressing challenge to tobacco control. In the last two decades, there has been an increase in tobacco leaf production, especially in low- and middle-income countries where tobacco remains a popular and even dominant cash crop in some countries. This growth is happening despite a slow global decline in tobacco consumption. The continuing and in some cases renewed popularity of tobacco growing is in significant part due to the tobacco industry’s long and successful perpetuation of a narrative of tobacco farming as economically prosperous, despite contrary evidence in most tobacco growing countries, including Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi, the Philippines and Zambia. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control’s Article 17 recognizes the need to address tobacco production, calling on Parties to assist tobacco farmers and others employed in the tobacco sector to find viable alternative economic livelihoods. However, despite mounting evidence from around the globe suggesting that labor-intensive tobacco cultivation is not nearly as profitable for smallholder farmers as the industry purports—and in fact is typically an economic loss for most tobacco-growing households across the globe— many smallholder farmers continue to grow tobacco. Thus, a major puzzle has emerged: if tobacco farming is so awful economically, why do tobacco farmers continue to do it? In newly-published research, authors from McGill University (led by Dr. Adriana Appau), ANU, and the Economic and Health Policy Research team at the American Cancer Society examine the main reasons why smallholder farmers in Indonesia and Philippines grow tobacco.  The authors used qualitative data from a series of focus group discussions over several years with farmers from the two countries’ main tobacco-growing regions.

If tobacco farming is so awful economically, why do tobacco farmers continue to do it?

The perceived viability of tobacco and the perceived financial benefits were the two most reported reasons that farmers continue to grow tobacco. Participants expressed that tobacco is profitable compared to other crops. However, the vast preponderance of empirical research on tobacco farming, including in these two countries, reveals that nearly all smallholder farmers fail to account for their household labor costs. These costs are enormous.  In Kenya, a recent study reveals that the median tobacco-farming household in Kenya reports spending 2880 hours growing tobacco.  This amount is more than double the next most labor-intensive crop, and several times most other crops.  Not surprisingly, including even a bare minimum value for this labor significantly reduces profits from tobacco farming: most farmers sustain substantial economic losses from cultivating tobacco. Farmers who shift to other crops grow their household resources by growing other crops, usually food crops both to consume and to sell, as well as taking on off-farm labor because they are emancipated from the enormous labor burden of tobacco growing.

Although environmental factors such as soil type and climate/weather also influenced the farmers to grow tobacco, it was the availability of a well-structured ready market for tobacco, which is often not available for other local crops, that also greatly influenced the farmers’ decisions to continue growing tobacco. Furthermore, the farmers—consistent with the body of research— reported a lack of access to capital, and they explained that growing tobacco gives them access to easy-to-obtain credit from the tobacco industry, even if it’s typically at unfavorable rates. Furthermore, farmers reported using these tobacco loans for other things such as cultivating other food crops and paying other household expenditures, such as healthcare and school fees.

These results highlight that, in addition to identifying and actively promoting economically viable alternatives to tobacco (i.e., crops that pay farmers some cash), governments must address institutional factors such as access to credit and supply chain improvement of alternative crops. Though the research shows that most former tobacco farmers are better off than their peers who continue to grow tobacco, linking buyers to the sellers of nontobacco crops would help farmers enormously to have confidence to shift away from tobacco.  Furthermore, expanding extension services of these other crops would also give farmers important new insights into building new and better economic nontobacco livelihoods.

By Adriana Appau and Jeff Drope

The full study is available here.