Sunday Mail Reporter
ZIMBABWE might be well on its way to reclaim its status as one of the top producers of tobacco in the world in the 2020/2021 cropping season.
As at 25 November, about 28 292 hectares had been planted compared to 27 181 ha in the previous season.
Last year, output declined 27 percent to 183 million kilogrammes from a record 252 million kg realised in 2018.
Government, through the National Development Strategy-1 (NDS-1), is mapping a new trajectory to get the maximum possible value from the cash crop through value-added products.
Only 1,5 percent of locally produced tobacco is channelled towards local processing, with the rest being exported in raw form. It is used for blending in export markets because of its good quality.
“Government is therefore, taking advantage of this quick-win by engaging relevant and potential investors for tobacco cigarettes manufacturing so as to enhance value benefits to the country,” said Finance and Economic Development Minister Professor Mthuli Ncube in the 2021 Budget.
But this might put Government in the cross hairs of a growing global lobby against tobacco smoking. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that eight million smokers would have died from smoking-related diseases by year-end, which is markedly more than the two million lives that would be lost to the coronavirus pandemic in the same period.
It is believed that by the end of the century, over a billion smokers would have succumbed.
Of concern is that 80 percent of smokers live in low- and middle-income countries such as Zimbabwe. Scientists, buoyed by a growing body of compelling scientific data, are increasingly pushing for alternative products such as electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), e-cigarettes, e-liquids and snus (moist powder tobacco), among others.
Experts suggest that strategically switching and aligning to alternative tobacco products other than smoking might be more pragmatic instead.
“The most toxic chemicals found in conventional cigarettes are either not present or are present at much lower levels in e-cigarettes. And in studies of trace elements which are potentially toxic, particularly toxics like lead, arsenic, silver, copper, palladium and cadmium, were rarely found in ENDS,” Professor Alan Boobis of the Imperial College London told the Virtual E-Cigarette Summit 2020 last week.
While researchers agree that tobacco smoking is harmful, with international bodies such as WHO angling to eliminate its production, experts say tobacco harm reduction methods are, however, practical, effective and efficacious.
President of Fagerstrom Consulting, Dr Karl Fagerstrom, indicated that if eliminating tobacco or nicotine was not possible, as was likely to be the case as proven by the previous attempts to ban other drugs, “there is an obligation to minimise harm and suffering”.
He said the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017 highlighted that there was a demonstrable decline in tobacco smoking and mortality in Sweden owing to the increased use of snus, which has been traditionally used in the Nordic country.
Some organisations, he added, were misdirecting themselves by waging a war against nicotine, which “is much less harmful than people think”, instead of concentrating on eliminating smoking.
“It is rare for anyone to get dependent on nicotine-replacement products such as chewing gum . . . but a cigarette is much more dependence-producing than any other tobacco/nicotine formulations,” claimed Dr Fagerstrom.
There is growing belief, therefore, that adopting policies that promote tobacco harm reduction (THR) and possibly exploring the feasibility of promoting the production of low-cost THR products could be a viable medium to long-term strategy.
Mr Chimwemwe Ngoma, director of THR Malawi, a non-governmental organisation, recently noted that “government policies and regulations are being unduly influenced by flawed science and anti-harm reduction lobbying”.
“In most low- and middle-income countries, THR products are either banned completely, heavily taxed or there are no specific laws that govern them,” he said.
There are fears the noose is tightening on tobacco smoking and, by extension, the cigarette manufacturing industry, as countries around the world double down on public health policies meant to reduce fatalities associated to tobacco-related diseases.
And for Zimbabwe – a major tobacco producer – this might mean charting a new course towards value adding tobacco, which eschews heavily relying on cigarette manufacturing in the medium to long term, and considering the feasibility of convenient tobacco harm reduction products.