ZIMBABWE’S lucrative golden leaf industry is now causing headaches for both government and the private sector.
tobacco industry, normally the country’s largest foreign currency earner, is facing numerous problems including grower dissatisfaction because of skewed pricing on the three sales floors, an aggressive international anti-smoking onslaught, as well as escalating input costs at a time when commercial banks have reduced lending to farmers.
The Minister of Health and Child Welfare David Parirenyatwa last week admitted all was not well in the tobacco industry, which added about $1,185 billion (US$21,7 million) to government’s revenue base last year.
The minister, who sometimes needs to stand on the fence when the issue is discussed, said while tobacco was a major revenue generating activity for Zimbabwe, from a health perspective its “use can kill when used exactly as it is supposed to”.
Parirenyatwa represents Zimbabwe on major tobacco discussing organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is calling for a total ban on tobacco products citing its health hazards.
“Recent WHO studies tell us that globally, around four million people die from tobacco-related illnesses each year,” the minister said. “This is the equivalent of twenty seven 747 airplanes full of passengers crashing everyday. By the year 2030, 10 million people will be dying each year from tobacco use…Based on current smoking trends tobacco will soon become the leading cause of death worldwide, causing more deaths than HIV, tuberculosis, maternal mortality, automobile accidents, homicide and suicide combined.”
On the other hand, while Parirenyatwa has to reveal these shocking statistics he admits that Zimbabwe is a major tobacco-growing country and approximately 33% of gross domestic product is contributed by tobacco exports.
“The tobacco sector also employs 1,2% of the agricultural labour force,” Parirenyatwa said. “Thus, a balance has to be achieved in instituting practical tobacco – control activities, that will at the same time have the best interest of our country at heart. It is a serious challenge and one that we need to take seriously.”
All these sentiments come at a time when Zimbabwe is at a crossroads with the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
The framework convention is a type of legally binding international treaty establishing general guidelines and principles for international governance on a particular issue.
The FCTC is currently being developed by the 191 member states of the World Health Assembly (WHA), and was recently signed by governments in May 2003.
If successfully negotiated, the FCTC would be the world’s first global agreement devoted entirely to tobacco control including banning advertising and sponsorship.
Zimbabwe entered FCTC negotiations in earnest at the March 2002 Working Group meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, where it put up spirited resistance to the negotiating process on the basis of socio-economic arguments as a major world tobacco producer.
The country’s position, articulated consistently and arrived at through a consensual process involving relevant stakeholders in the tobacco industry and government, has been that the issues surrounding tobacco control are much broader and demand to be looked at in the global context of national concerns that take into account the general economic well-being of the nation.
Parirenyatwa said from a public health point of view, Zimbabwe was one of the countries that approved the FCTC at WHA 2003 in May.
Zimbabwe, however, still argues that firm funding mechanisms must be put into place to guarantee against any future losses.
“There has been no ratification yet,” said Parirenyatwa. “What you are reading in the press about us signing is a load of rubbish.”
Managing director of Words and Images Public Relations Ray Mawerera summed it up when he said: “There you have it ladies and gentlemen, the minister says he did not sign anything.”
The WHO’s FCTC was signed by 40 countries and the European community during the first week it opened for signature.
Norway became the first country to accept the treaty.