By Harold Acemah
Romantic stories about tobacco sales paying school fees for our children is lopsided and short-sighted
Right from colonial days, West Nile and the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara have been the major tobacco growing regions of Uganda and in the West Nile region, Terego County – where I come from – was the centre of tobacco growing. The regional BAT Leaf Factory was until recently located at Wandi which is my village; so tobacco growing as a cash crop is as familiar to me as coffee is to a Mugisu.
I was a smoker, on and off, from 1967 when I was a fresher at the University of East Africa, Makerere, until 1987 when I was a Visiting Fellow at Oxford University. I must confess, although I joined the smoking club due to peer pressure and because it was fashionable those days for young men to smoke, I enjoyed this rather dangerous and useless hobby. So when I castigate smoking and tobacco it is from a position of strength as an enlightened consumer.
During the campaigns for the 2011 general elections, one of the key issues in my manifesto was to sensitise the people of Terego about the hazards of growing tobacco and smoking. In most cases, the reaction of the audience was positive, but they would always ask me whether there were any alternatives to growing tobacco, after all, it had sustained wananchi for decades. There are, of course, many viable alternatives to tobacco which I will address later, but let me first justify why Ugandans should, at the earliest opportunity, stop growing tobacco as a cash crop.
The justification for abandoning tobacco growing falls into three categories; first, smoking tobacco is a major health hazard; second, smoking is a drain on public resources allocated to the health sector and third, growing tobacco is environmentally a disaster. Many areas of Terego and Maracha counties have been reduced to arid, almost semi-desert zones due to deforestation arising from the wholesale cutting of trees as fuel wood to cure tobacco.
The romantic story that proceeds from the sale of tobacco paid and continues to pay school fees for our children is lopsided and short-sighted because the colossal damage which tobacco has done to Ugandans and to our environment far outweighs the meagre benefits derived from the crop. The evidence is overwhelming and available in the public domain.
I urge the political leaders of West Nile and Uganda to honestly guide and sensitise our people about the negative consequences of growing tobacco and smoking.
Tobacco is the single greatest cause of preventable death in the world today and if that cannot justify why Uganda should strictly regulate smoking and growing of tobacco, I don’t know what will.
The use of tobacco is the most common cause of heart, liver and lung diseases; smoking is a major cause of heart attack, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cancer, especially lung cancer and cancer of the throat and mouth. I lost three close friends during the 1990s to lung cancer!
Environmental tobacco smoke, commonly known as secondhand smoke, has negative health effects on people of all ages.
Smoking causes impotence because it promotes arterial narrowing and incidence of impotence is approximately 85 per cent higher in male smokers than in non-smokers; and smoking is also a key cause of erectile dysfunction. Well, young men don’t cry in the wilderness that you were not warned!
According to World Health Organisation estimates, tobacco caused 5.4 million deaths in 2004 and during the entire 20th century, a staggering 100 million lives were lost due to the use of tobacco. This avoidable and preventable mass suicide is sinful and totally unacceptable!
There are many viable alternatives to tobacco such as coffee, rice, beans, ground nuts, sesame and other food crops; vegetables and fruits. Most of these crops, in fact, fetch higher prices than tobacco on the world market and are less demanding in terms of inputs which tobacco farmers must procure in advance. Fruits such as mangoes, oranges, pineapples and passion fruit are in high demand locally and across the border in South Sudan. A fruit juice factory was opened recently in Arua and I am advised that it imports much of its raw materials from outside the West Nile region when our farmers have the potential and capacity to supply enough fruits to keep the factory functional all year round.
On February 27, 2005, the United Nations Framework Convention on Tobacco Control came into force; I am glad Uganda is one of the 168 countries which have signed the treaty which seeks to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke. Uganda should make every effort to implement the treaty whose provisions are only minimum requirements and we must, in due course, enact more stringent measures to regulate tobacco.
Since prevention is better than cure, I believe the best solution to avert the negative consequences of smoking is for the people of Uganda to abandon growing tobacco altogether. As I have argued above, there are many viable and better alternatives which are readily available. Aluta continua!
Dr Harold Acemah is a retired diplomat, politician, and social commentator.