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Smoking is healthy for Africa

Policies that emanate from Geneva are often based scarcely on statistics, and stifle economic growth in the developing world

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Graphic by Bureaucrash
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David Atherton
On 8 November 2012 13:20

Africa has sadly often been a continent of civil war, disease, famine, and corruption for decades, especially post colonialism.

Hand-wringing, bleeding-heart liberal aid has often ended up in the pockets of the despots and tyrants who run the countries, or anyone with a government badge who can pronounce the word ‘bribe.’

It was only recently reported by Forbes Magazine that Nigerian officials have spent a record $6.5 billion on private jets in the last five years. Mobuto Sese Seko who was Zaire’s President from 1965 to 1997 stashed away $5 billion in Swiss bank accounts.

Zambian writer, Harvard and Oxford educated Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid outlines that, “Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.”

So to break loose of the status quo it would appear that the most optimal solution is trade. It is probably fair to say that the commodity resources of Africa are waved through. The Chinese have been particularly active in courting the continent.  It is probable that the wealth fails to filter down to the general population from the Mbenzi, the 5 percent or less of Africans that control it. This leaves agriculture.

Africa has potentially more fertile, arable land than Europe, it just needs a market. Not that the European Union is eager to put haricot beans and avocados from Kenya on the Brussels’ menu or for the Americans in Washington.

The EU of course has the Common Agricultural Policy. A vast network of guaranteed minimum prices, price support, quotas and import tariffs designed to keep the free market at bay. Consuming €43.8 billion or 31% of the EU budget in 2010 it is riddled with fraud.

As the Institute of Economic Affairs noted in 2008 “..the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), has switched {the EU} from being a large net importer of agricultural products to a large exporter. This has greatly altered world agricultural markets, imposing substantial costs on the EU itself and efficient agricultural exporters in the rest of the world.”

It has also led to the bizarre economics of “dumping” EU beef in Africa and the West Indies. The people who have suffered the most are the local producers, who are also among the poorest. The EU’s family loses out in the added cost of buying food. It is estimated that the average household pays £400 a year extra as a result.

Uncle Sam grits his teeth too. Partly as result of CAP (a small trade war perhaps) the USA has subsidised its own agriculture to the tune of $240 billion from 1995 to 2011, and too guarantees minimum prices. Annual spending currently compares to the EU at $30.6 billion.  

I would also note that Japanese subsidies are $45.6 billion, so it is just not the anglosphere. Mark Malloch Brown the former head of the United Nations Development Program said in 2002, "It is the extraordinary distortion of global trade, where the West spends $360 billion a year on protecting its agriculture with a network of subsidies and tariffs that costs developing countries about US$50 billion in potential lost agricultural exports.” The fifty billion dollars would go directly to them. 

However there is one bright spot on the African agriculture, the cultivation of tobacco. About 30 million Africans out of a continent of 800 million are reliant on it for their living. As you can guess someone wants to interfere.

The bully in this case is the World Health Organization (WHO). In its crusading zeal to eliminate the dreaded weed, the WHO has set up the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). One of its subsections is the Conference of the Parties (COP). Lurching onto its 5th meeting on the 12th to 17th November 2012, it is planning a vote on inter alia: 

Reducing the land available to cultivate tobacco;

“Rehabilitation programmes” forcing African farmers and of course others world wide to grow other crops;

Stopping farmers from accepting help from customers to improve crop yields, and perversely improving ‘elf and safety, working and environmental conditions of the workers;

Regulate the seasons in which tobacco farming is allowed;

The banning of tobacco farming-related bodies that interface the growers and government.

What I find it exceedingly hypocritical is that on ‘elf and safety there is a disease called Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS) which affects the handlers of raw tobacco. The symptoms in extreme cases are severe headaches, vomiting and dizziness caused by adsorption of nicotine through the skin.

It can be simply cured by wearing an overall and it is my understanding that the major tobacco companies are educating the producers and are happy to endorse world wide standards to ensure the good health of workers. The WHO wants to stop this? If the WHO wants to play the green card on tobacco it is only 0.1 percent of world cultivation.

I guess next on the agenda are poppy growers in Afghanistan and cocoa farmers in Columbia and Peru. The CEO of the Tobacco Institute of South Africa Francois van der Merwe summarised the $10 billion revenue Africa receives by saying, “These people are in deep rural areas… where jobs are impossible to find.”  He criticised “health bureaucrats who sit with their smart suits and sharp, pointed shoes in air-conditioned offices in Geneva, thinking out these guidelines not knowing these numbers.”

Let me also add that many African countries not only grow the crop but also are in charge of the supply chain and even has created manufacturing jobs in South Africa with cigarette factories. In contrast to the exporting of oil and metals, with absolutely no added value to the country.

Also it is possible to generate enough money to feed a family on 1-2 hectares (ha) of land as opposed to the usual 3ha. It is very land efficient. I might add that because the curing of tobacco takes many months there is no pressing need like fruit and vegetables to have a razor sharp communications infrastructure to get it to market as quickly. 

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) likes to turn up at the British American Tobacco’s AGM in Blackfriars for a spot of mischief. Often quoting Malawi as a blue print as a BAT den on iniquity pointing to  “..death, hunger, poverty, and environmental destruction.” They also bang on about child labour.

I investigated the numbers and when it comes to trade and foreign exchange earnings, tobacco is responsible for 70 percent of Malawi’s income. How much does a packet of Marlboro in Malawi cost? It is USD $2.98 which is the equivalent of 2 days wages for the average Malawian, that is the equivalent of £140 in the UK. It is unlikely that many smoke.

The remaining figures are from United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). 91 percent of Malawian children go to school to the age of 11-12. Malawi has an impressive 74 percent literacy rate. Amongst the important 15-24 year olds 87 percent of males and 86 percent of females are literate.

On immunisation against common diseases the figures are notable too. At worst 87% percent of the population are immunised for tetanus through to 97 percent for tuberculosis. I would only controversially conclude that without the tobacco crop, Malawi could scarcely afford this. I appreciate that the educated informed users like me potentially may have health affects from smoking, however you can only conclude that in Malawi and also most of Africa, tobacco undoubtedly helps.

To sum up, I am sure I do not have to mention private property rights and the sheer temerity someone dictating what legal activities go on. Without swiveling my eyes and looking for a conspiracy, it seems that many want to condemn Africa to a lifetime of penury, in practice if not in philosophy. However I would hazard a guess the WHO officials who will frog march their ideas into world law may well on their death beds see the face of the devil.

David Atherton is Chairman of Freedom2Choose, which seeks to protect the informed choices of consenting adults on the issues of smoking. Follow him on Twitter: @DaveAtherton20

Read more on: smoking, tobacco, africa, development, WTO, and Malawi
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