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Ugandan tobacco farmers worry about potential regulation impact

Ugandan tobacco farmers are concerned that government regulation of tobacco use could devastate business (Photo: CC-BY-SA)
Ugandan tobacco farmers are concerned that government regulation of tobacco use could devastate business (Photo: CC-BY-SA)

The Ugandan government is set to make it more difficult to be a smoker in the country. How will this affect poor farmers who depend on tobacco for income?

It is generally recognised that smoking tobacco has a host of negative health effects, primarily the increased risk of developing various types of cancer. This is not just the concern of individuals; governments are increasingly concerned about the strain it places on health services in countries with large numbers of smokers. This concern has led to a range of responses, such as higher levels of taxation on tobacco products and banning smoking in public spaces.

The Ugandan government will soon vote on its own set of tobacco regulations. Dr Sheila Ndyanabangi, of Uganda's health ministry, has said that the goal of this legislation is “to make it extremely hard for one to find or smoke a cigarette”. This new bill is expected to pass later this year, making it illegal to smoke in public and banning all tobacco advertising. Whilst this would likely have a positive impact on public health, many tobacco growers are concerned about the impact it could have on their livelihoods.

Steady income

There are around 75,000 tobacco growers in Uganda, many of whom do so on a very small-scale basis. The Guardian newspaper talks to two such farmers, Fred Okippi who owns five acres and Onen Can who has seven. They say they are very worried about the effects of this bill on their farms. For them, life is already difficult. Neither has been able to build a permanent house and they often struggle to provide food for their children. Both worry that the regulation of tobacco would rob them of the steady income that tobacco offers.

Can and Okippi have been growing tobacco all of their lives and it provides a far higher return on investment than almost all other crops. For example, they can earn $1.60 per kilo of tobacco in comparison to just $0.30 for maize. Despite these worries, health campaigners are adamant that more needs to be done to limit its use throughout the country. With an estimated 13,500 Ugandans dying every year as a result of tobacco use, it is not hard to see why.

End of the line

Chris Baryomunsi MP tells the Guardian that the new bill has received widespread support from medical professionals in the country. Importantly, he stresses that the industry has actually done little to help people escape poverty, which certainly seems to be true in the cases of Can and Okippi. Equally, Platform for Labour Action (PLA), a Kampala-based NGO, finds that children from families that grow tobacco miss school regularly during planting and harvest season.

Based on this it is hard to make social or economic case for the tobacco industry, especially when neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania already have similar restrictions. However, the concerns of already impoverished farmers must be taken seriously. More must be done to help them to maximise the income from their land or to move into other sectors. Failure to do so could severely harm vulnerable populations.

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