Dr Rosemary Hiscock is a Research Associate from the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) in the Department for Health, University of Bath. World No Tobacco Day was on Wednesday, 31 May 2023.
Smoking prevalence in the UK is estimated to be 13% and young people in the UK are, if anything, more likely to use e-cigarettes than conventional cigarettes. It is therefore understandable if people in the UK thought the 2023 WHO World No Tobacco Day theme ‘We need food, not tobacco’ could pass us by. However, neither the tobacco endgame nor the hunger endgame have been reached by the UK or the wider world to which we are more and more closely connected.
Hunger is growing in the UK, with the poorest households likely to struggle to feed their families. Food insecurity and food bank use in the UK is associated with poorer health and wellbeing and poorer GCSE results; food security is compromising life chances and UK productivity. Smoking can lead to poverty - more than a million smoking households in the UK live in poverty. Nicotine’s addictive properties make quitting difficult and low income smokers face more barriers to quitting. Even though low income smokers are just as likely to try to quit smoking, they are less likely to successfully quit. They may experience more life stress, have greater dependence on tobacco and lack social support for quitting.
At the same time, two of the largest transnational companies, British American Tobacco (BAT) and Imperial Brands (IMB) are based in the UK and are making huge profits whilst paying insufficient tax. They use these profits to lobby against UK tobacco control legislation directly and indirectly, thereby contributing to deepening poverty in the UK.
Most of their profits are made outside the UK through their global sales and through keeping their global supply chain as efficient as possible in order to maximise profitability. BAT admits to minimal spending, saying it makes “the lowest possible working capital investment” to meet demand.
The tobacco supply chain includes growing tobacco, processing tobacco leaf, manufacturing cigarettes and other tobacco products, distributing, marketing and selling the tobacco, research and development and financing. The tobacco industry controls where it undertakes these activities and increasingly sources its tobacco leaf for cigarettes and newer nicotine and tobacco products from low and middle income countries.
Tobacco farming in these countries typically produces incomes that “fall well below the World Bank international poverty line of US$1.90/day”; farmers are not progressing from their involvement in the tobacco supply chain. In fact, they can even struggle to feed themselves: “six of the top ten tobacco countries a significant share of the population is food insecure… every square kilometre used for tobacco farming is a danger to food security”.
Why should we in the UK be concerned about food insecurity far away? In addition to consequences for health and wellbeing, food insecurity can lead to national and international conflict and instability. This could be due to extremist militias recruiting by promising food; people thinking their ethnic or social group is discriminated against and attacking groups they perceive to be more favoured; and the perception of government failure to fulfil basic needs which can lead to its de-legitimisation, then leading to protests or support for rebel groups. Such conflicts are a risk to the UK, as they lead to displacement and migration, and post conflict humanitarian aid is expensive.
Global food insecurity has increased since 2019 and is expected to rise further due to climate change. In the UK we have recently been introduced to empty shelves in supermarkets as harvests struggle due to extreme weather in the Mediterranean. The tobacco supply chain is making climate change worse. When the tobacco industry demands flue-cured tobacco, farmers burn wood or coal for curing, releasing greenhouse gases and causing 5% of the deforestation in tobacco growing countries and 2% globally. Greenhouse gases are also emitted elsewhere in the supply chain: from transporting the tobacco leaf and later the tobacco products, from energy required to power the machinery to process the leaf, make chemicals, machinery, cigarette paper, filters and packaging and the tobacco products, from smoking itself and from final use and disposal.
The Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) at the University of Bath has created the tobacco supply chain database to track tobacco company subsidiaries and independent companies that contribute to the tobacco supply chain including over 40 with a presence in the UK. Independent companies headquartered in the UK include tobacco machinery producers, companies assisting with the logistics of transporting tobacco elsewhere in the world and business service companies providing financing and legal advice. Some companies use their UK bases to produce cigarette filters which are portrayed as improving health but instead increase the risk of cancer and are also a major source of plastic pollution, and to develop tobacco product flavours which attract young people.
Owners, shareholders and employees of these UK companies need to think carefully whether they want to support an industry which is contributing to hunger at home and abroad and exacerbating climate change. A UK listed company has recently exited from cigarette filter production and was able to provide a substantial pay out for investors. TCRG calls upon other companies to stop their involvement in the tobacco supply chain.
Despite the huge profits of the tobacco multinationals, many governments of tobacco growing countries subsidise their tobacco farmers. As part of last week's World No Tobacco Day, the World Health Organization is calling for private sector finance institutions and all governments to encourage governments of tobacco growing countries to stop providing subsidies and instead support farmers to switch to food crops which they can sell profitably and feed their families and the world.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.