As WHO Marks 'No Tobacco Day,' African Farmers Stand Up to '21st Century Imperialism'

By Susan Jones | May 30, 2012 | 11:36 AM EDT

( - The World Health Organization has designated May 31 as "World No Tobacco Day," and this year it will use the day to "educate policy-makers and the general public" about the tobacco industry's "interference" with a global tobacco-control treaty.

WHO accuses the tobacco industry of using "brazen and increasingly aggressive attempts to undermine the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC)."

The treaty, which took effect in 2005, requires participating countries to adopt measures that reduce both the supply of and demand for tobacco.

But African tobacco farmers see the treaty as a threat to their livelihood.

On Wednesday, following a meeting in Zambia, the African farmers issued a declaration opposing efforts to phase out tobacco farming by limiting the land where it can be grown, among other restrictions.

"There's now a unified voice throughout Southern and East Africa that's determined to protect the land, the jobs, and the communities sustained by tobacco farming," said Antonio Abrunhosa, chief executive officer of the International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA), which wrapped up a two-day meeting in Zambia on Wednesday.

Tobacco growers from Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe said the treaty puts their livelihoods at risk while failing to offer an economically viable alternative crop.

"These farmers are prepared to stand up to this 21st century imperialism from a body comprising mainly health officials who are out of touch with the farming sector and who are putting our economy at risk," said Francois van der Merwe, chairman of ITGA Africa Region.

The ITGA describes itself as a non-profit organization that works to ensure the long-term security of tobacco farming communities.

The World Health Organization says as more countries try to meet their obligations under the treaty, the tobacco industry's efforts to undermine it are becoming "more and more energetic."

"On World No Tobacco Day 2012, and throughout the following year, WHO will urge countries to put the fight against tobacco industry interference at the heart of their efforts to control the global tobacco epidemic," the U.N. agency said in a news release.

The preamble of the tobacco control treaty recognizes "the need to be alert to any efforts by the tobacco industry to undermine or subvert tobacco control efforts."

WHO points to efforts by the tobacco industry to block graphic health warnings on tobacco packages, as well as the industry's opposition to bans on public smoking and tobacco advertising.

"There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests," the treaty says. "The tobacco industry produces and promotes a product that has been proven scientifically to be addictive, to cause disease and death and to give rise to a variety of social ills, including increased poverty. Therefore, Parties should protect the formulation and implementation of public health policies for tobacco control from the tobacco industry to the greatest extent possible."

According to the International Tobacco Growers Association, African tobacco farmers provide a stable living for millions of people throughout the region, and their crops are a vital source of foreign revenue for many of these countries. It notes that in Malawi, 7 out of 10 workers are either directly or indirectly employed by the sector and tobacco represents 70% of its foreign exchange earnings and 15% of total GDP.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is the first treaty negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization.

The treatry has 168 signatories, including the United States. President George W. Bush signed the treaty in October 2004 but neither he nor President Obama submitted it to the Senate for ratification.