Telling empowering stories, South Africans want to hear

Tuesday, 30 May 2023 15:10

World No Tobacco Day: South Africa needs food, not tobacco.

Health Reporter.


Marked annually on 31 May, the 2023 theme for World No Tobacco Day is "We need food, not Tobacco. The global WHO campaign calls for suitable policies, strategies and enabling market conditions for tobacco-growing farmers to shift to growing sustainable food crops. While tobacco farming represents only a small fraction of agriculture in South Africa, our country is deeply impacted by the health and socio-economic impacts of tobacco growing and use, say leading health and community organisations united as Protect our Next.  The organisations are hopeful that South Africa's Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill, set to reduce tobacco use and improve lives and livelihoods, will become law in 2023.

"Tobacco harms our health, the health of farmers, our communities and our planet," says Dr Sharon Nyatsanza of Protect our Next member organisation, the National Council Against Smoking (NCAS). "The tobacco industry produces and markets products that damage the environment, kill millions of people prematurely, rob households of finances that could have been used for food and education, and imposes immense healthcare costs on families, communities and countries. It's time for South Africa to implement stronger tobacco control policies to urgently reduce the impact of tobacco on our health and economy."

A shift to sustainable crops
According to the WHO, while the tobacco industry uses the issue of farmers' livelihoods as a barrier to the implementation of strong tobacco control measures, it in fact damages livelihoods and food security. The industry creates front groups to lobby against policy changes and interferes with attempts to substitute tobacco growing, contributing to the global food crisis.  In South Africa, tobacco farming is estimated to contribute only 1% of the total farmworker labour force with less than 0.01% of agricultural land devoted to tobacco cultivation. “Although the tobacco industry presents tobacco farming as a lucrative endeavour for vulnerable smallholder farmers, the industry exploits the farmers it claims to support,"says Nyatsanza. "Farmers remain poor and earn little from the low prices paid by tobacco companies for their leaves. Switching to more sustainable food crops and putting food on South Africa's tables, not tobacco, is what we need."

Tobacco and e-cigarette use in SA
The 2021 Global Adult Tobacco Survey for South Africa (GATS-SA) found that 12.7 million people use tobacco in South Africa, 29.4% of our population. South African smokers spend a median amount of R263 on cigarettes each month, in a country where 3,7 million households (21%) experience inadequate or severely inadequate access to food.  "In communities with limited resources, too much money is spent on feeding nicotine addictions instead of hungry tummies," says Dr Catherine Egbe, specialist scientist within the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drugs Research Unit.

GATS-SA further revealed the highest prevalence of e-cigarette use was in the 15-24 age group.  "This is an alarming statistic for harmful products. This is not the group that would be using them to stop smoking. Furthermore, 21% of e-cigarette users have been using these products for more than two years while many continue to also smoke, indicating users simply sustained nicotine addiction," she continues. "Research shows the need for urgent implementation of the Bill and provides government with the empirical evidence required to support each measure."

This Bill will repeal existing legislation, which falls short of provisions to regulate new-generation products including as e-cigarettes, amongst other critical measures. The proposed regulations will extend to e-cigarettes (also called vapes) and water pipes, (also called hubbly bubblies), bringing them into the regulatory framework for tobacco control in South Africa.

The Bill requires that any enclosed public area is 100% smoke-free, and will make certain outdoor public places smoke-free too, providing protection for many South Africans who are often involuntarily exposed to second-hand smoke. It removes the requirement to provide for smoking areas in all enclosed public places, workplaces and on public conveyances and applies the 100% smoking ban to common areas of multi-unit residences. It further prohibits smoking and the use of electronic cigarettes in private dwellings used for commercial child care or education, and in cars carrying children under 18, rather than under 12. The Bill introduces uniform plain packaging for all brands and pictorial warnings on all packages. Advertising of tobacco products, heated tobacco and electronic cigarettes at points of sale (tills) and the sale of cigarettes through vending machines will be prohibited. 

 "There is an urgent need to protect our youth from the impact of tobacco and e-cigarettes," says Sanele Zulu of the South African Tobacco-Free Youth Forum (SATFYF). "Economies can prosper and lives can be saved when governments implement cost-effective, proven measures, like smoke-free policies, restrictions on marketing activities and prominent health warning labels, all measures that are included in South Africa's new Bill that will align us with our FCTC commitments. Instead of allowing the tobacco companies to continue to reap profits while creating huge burdens on our public health, our government should strengthen tobacco control policies, encourage a switch to sustainable crops  and increase taxes."

Lorraine Govender of the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) says that these evidence-based tobacco control interventions as included in the Bill make sense from an economic as well as a public health standpoint. "Tobacco control is a critical measure to reduce the economic burden of NCDs in South Africa, mostly cardiovascular disease, cancers, chronic obstructed pulmonary disease and diabetes. NCDs account for the deaths of over 50% of South Africans prematurely every year. It's time for South Africa to strengthen our tobacco control legislation and pass the Bill. It can only benefit our economy, our environment and our health."

According to Nyatsanza, the tobacco and e-cigarette industry continues to step up efforts to prevent the bill from being passed, spreading public misinformation in support of their own profit objectives. “It’s clear that paid influencers and front groups are being used online, in social media and in the press.  Facts are being twisted in a last ditch attempt to sway public opinion, which GATS-SA shows is in fact overwhelmingly in favour of the smoke-free spaces measure in the bill.  For example, scare tactic messaging that you’ll immediately be put in prison for six months should you light up in the wrong place, or that e-cigarettes will be banned, are distorting the facts.”

Nyatsanza concludes, "We need to protect the health and well-being of farmers and traders from the harms of tobacco growing and the exploitation of their livelihoods by the tobacco industry.  We also need to protect our communities from the harms of tobacco. It’s simple, we need food, not tobacco!"

Cpmpiled by Lehlohonolo Lehana.