Is plain packaging threatening Malawi’s economy?

Josephine Chinele, CNS Correspondent, Malawi
It is tobacco selling season in Malawi and there is unrest among the tobacco cultivating farmers due to poor prices. Sales for the past five years indicate that tobacco prices have kept falling with each passing year. Even though the farmers keep blaming the contract system-a system where farmers get into an agreement with a buying company on the amount of tobacco they should grow and the company provides them with the necessary inputs for production on loan. During tobacco selling season (like now) all tobacco from contract farmers is bought on a priority basis.

“There was a time I could make a fortune out of tobacco, but not anymore,” says Jedeni Clifford, a Kasungu based farmer. Even though he is not making any profit, he is still growing the tobacco crop alongside maize and legumes. He says he is not aware of any health problems that tobacco products cause, but has rather known tobacco as a cash crop all his life. Perhaps this ignorance is wide spread among Malawian farmers or may be nobody has told them the truth about the health hazards of tobacco and the anti-tobacco campaigns in other countries. Vice President for Pharmaceutical Association of Malawi (PHASOM), John Mponda notes that, unlike any other product in the market, tobacco is the only legal consumer product that kills when used as intended by the manufacturer. “Tobacco is one of the leading risk factors for Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) such as hypertension, cancer and diabetes among others,” he said in a press statement released on World No Tobacco Day, on May 31, 2016. He pointed out that in tobacco growing countries like Malawi, children from poor households are employed in tobacco farming to supplement family income. These children are vulnerable to green tobacco sickness which is caused by nicotine poisoning that is absorbed through the skin from the handling of wet tobacco leaves, characterized by nausea and vomiting.

Mponda observed that smoke free laws are not effective in Malawi, urging city councils and owners of public places to put in place smoke free laws to protect non smokers from passive smoking. “There is a new regulation for tobacco products to use plain packages with clear warning messages in the form of diagrams. Plain packaging has also been described as packaging that is black and white or of just two contrasting colours, as prescribed by national authorities, with nothing else than a brand name, a product name and/or manufacturer’s name, contact details and the quantity of product in the packaging,” he explained. Last year, Tobacco Association of Malawi (TAMA) pleaded with France to reconsider its proposal to impose plain packaging for tobacco products, saying this will affect the economic sustainability of Malawi’s major export crop. According to TAMA, “Plain packaging devalues the product and is easy to copy. The manufacturers of tobacco products will no longer have interest in supplying a product which has no brand value. This will inevitably lead to the use of cheaper tobacco and drive down the price of leaf tobacco.

In the case of illicit trade, international leaf merchant companies, such as those operating here, have systems in place which prevent them from dealing with illegal cigarette makers and we, the tobacco growers, will suffer.” Tobacco is Malawi’s economic backbone, contributing to 11% of its gross domestic product (GDP) and 60% of its foreign exchange earnings. There are 350 000 tobacco growers in the country, with the tobacco industry providing 80% of the rural jobs. Regional Advisor for Tobacco Control (Asia Pacific), of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and lung Disease, Dr Tara Singh Bam says that smoking poses the biggest threat to public health in the world today. Tobacco is a risk factor for 6 out of the world’s 8 leading causes of death. It can lead to heart disease, cardio vascular disease, lower respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, TB, and lung cancers, he said in a media webinar organised by CNS. Bam highlighted that the cost to smokers and families is huge as it causes premature death and ill health which results in high health care costs. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is also advocating for plain packaging of tobacco products and effective policies to reduce tobacco consumption.

The secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is calling upon countries to get ready for plain packaging of tobacco products. But Malawi is one of few countries that did not sign or ratify it. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by member states of the United Nations in September 2015, recognises non communicable diseases (NCDs) as a major challenge for sustainable development. Heads of governments are committed to develop national responses to the overall implementation of this agenda, including reducing by one third premature mortality from NCDs and strengthening the implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). It is high time tobacco farmers of Malawi realised the irreversible health damage tobacco is causing to their children’s as well as their own health. There should be serious efforts to make them replace tobacco with other economically viable crops.

Josephine Chinele, Citizen News Service - CNS
June 22, 2016