Tobacco Farming

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Despite a global trend of decreasing tobacco consumption from 2000 to 2018,1 tobacco leaf production continues to grow, supported by the narratives of the tobacco industry.2 Tobacco farming takes place, in its vast majority, in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC).3 The tobacco industry’s playbook to promote tobacco cultivation includes arguments that highlight the economic prosperity resulting from tobacco farming; emphasise tobacco cultivation’s role in the empowerment of impoverished populations and the strengthening of communities; and strategically minimise the health and environmental risks of said production.4

Economic prosperity and tobacco farming

According to the tobacco industry, tobacco cultivation promises high rates of return for investing in tobacco crops and long-term benefits to smallholder farmers. British American Tobacco (BAT) argues that “tobacco cultivation plays an important and positive role in livelihoods, helping to improve the wellbeing and increase the resilience of the tobacco farmers and labourers”.4

However, evidence shows that the labour costs of this type of production are enormous, as much as double the labour needed to produce other similar crops. A study conducted on Kenyan farmers showed that the median tobacco-farming household in Kenya spends an average of 2880 hours growing tobacco.25 The number of hours needed for tobacco growing does not translate to high profits for the farmers. The prices for tobacco leaf have also decreased since 2013, leaving the farmers with a labour-intensive production with very low profits per hour spent.3

The tobacco industry minimises the low rates of return of investment for tobacco growing and downplays the financial risks for the farmers in their sustainability reports.46 The contract growing system keeps farmers impoverished and dependent on tobacco companies and their leaf sourcing affiliates for seeds, agrochemicals and pricing.6 In Lebanon, small scale production is so unprofitable that it would not be possible without government subsidy.7 Moreover, tobacco farmers were found to be more vulnerable, according to the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005), as they manage less diverse, and therefore less stable, agroecosystems; produce less food, and have less resilient livelihood strategies within the political process than non-tobacco growers of the same area.8

Together with the narrative of economic prosperity comes the fallacy of the empowerment of impoverished and vulnerable communities through tobacco farming. Philip Morris International (PMI) published a report in April 2020, focusing on the empowerment of women for change in its supply chain. In this report, PMI argues that it works to “empower women to play an active role in improving the household economic condition but also in enhancing the overall wellbeing of their children and maintaining a safe work environment” in tobacco farms.9 However, the working situation for women is complicated at tobacco farms. A study conducted in China, Tanzania and Kenya concluded that few women farmers had any financial decision-making power, with men owning the titles for the lands and receiving the most revenue for the collective hours of labour. Respondents commonly reported being treated unfairly by tobacco companies. Moreover, women face particular harmful effects to their health while working on tobacco farms, including risks of miscarriages while pregnant.10

All four transnational tobacco corporations have a strong narrative around tobacco farming supporting the case that this activity would increase livelihoods, strengthen communities, provide financially stable futures for farmers, and good working conditions.11121314 For example, Japan Tobacco International (JTI) states on its website that “Growers know they will receive meaningful support that not only leads to improved yields and profits, but that also help improve the social conditions and quality of life in their communities.”15

However, a WHO report on tobacco and the environment published in 2017 found that “short-term benefits offset by long-term consequences of “increased food insecurity, frequent sustained farmers’ debt, illness and poverty among farmworkers, and widespread environmental damage”.16 Tobacco farmers end up having to dedicate intensive labour hours to produce tobacco leaf, in inadequate working conditions, with low wages and unfair conditions that include child labour. The 2017 WHO report also identified the process of tobacco grading, where leaves are sorted according to certain characteristics, as a mechanism “through which transnational tobacco companies forcibly reduce their costs and which accounts in large part, for the high profitability of the tobacco industry”.16

  • For more information on how the tobacco industry compensates for unfair working conditions and child labour with CSR programmes and donations to environmental and sustainability organisations, see our page on greenwashing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the struggle of farmers to find fair prices for their tobacco bales on the auction floors, as well as the health risks of tobacco farming. In Malawi, farmers have reported receiving less than half of the expected rate for their tobacco leaf at auction.17 Fears that crowded auction floors and direct contact between growers and buyers would promote transmission of the virus prompted Zimbabwean authorities to delay the opening of the tobacco market selling season to 22 April 2020.1819 Once the markets did open, new regulations stated that individual farmers would not be allowed onto auction floors; tobacco association representatives would instead sell leaf on behalf of farmers.19

  • For more information on the tobacco industry and COVID-19, see our page on COVID-19.

Environmental and health risks of tobacco leaf production

Tobacco leaf production has many environmental and health risks, which are frequently underreported by the tobacco industry. Minimizing the health and environmental impacts of tobacco growing is yet another tactic of the tobacco industry.

According to the World Health Organization, “each day, a tobacco worker who plants, cultivates and harvests tobacco may absorb as much nicotine as found in 50 cigarettes”.3 Nicotine poisoning, also known as green tobacco sickness, occurs as a result exposure to wet tobacco leaves during tobacco cultivation. Children are more vulnerable to green tobacco sickness given their proportionally lower body mass to nicotine absorption.316 Avoiding nicotine poisoning when working with tobacco plants is difficult, even when wearing protective equipment. British American Tobacco (BAT) reported several cases of green tobacco sickness in its Brazil farm works, despite their having worn protective equipment.4

In addition to exposure to high levels of nicotine that increases farmers’ risk of poisoning, another risk resulting from tobacco farming is the exposure to agrochemicals, including pesticides. Researchers found that in Kenya, 26% of tobacco workers display symptoms of pesticide poisoning;20 in Malaysia, this number was higher than a third.21 In Bangladesh, where weed killer is frequently used in tobacco fields, significant levels of chemicals were also detected in local water sources, killing fish and soil organisms needed to maintain soil health.22

The risk of exposure to pesticides is higher in LMICs, given that the regulations allow more extensive use of these chemicals than in high-income countries. Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) plus eleven other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) used in agrochemicals are banned in high income but not in some LMICs. Pesticides are often sold to tobacco farmers without proper packaging or instructions. The health effects that derive from chronic exposure range from birth defects and tumours to blood disorders and neurological diseases. Even tobacco workers who do not directly mix or spray chemicals, like harvesters, can be exposed to significant levels of toxins and are susceptible to pesticide poisoning.16

Tobacco farming and the FCTC

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) provides guidelines in its articles 18 and 19 for holding the tobacco industry accountable for the risks posed to the environment and the health effects of tobacco cultivation and manufacture:23

  • Article 18 (Protection of the environment and the health of persons): “In carrying out their obligations under this Convention, the Parties agree to have due regard to the protection of the environment and the health of persons in relation to the environment in respect of tobacco cultivation and manufacture within their respective territories.”
  • Article 19 (Liability): “For the purpose of tobacco control, the Parties shall consider taking legislative action or promoting their existing laws, where necessary, to deal with criminal and civil liability, including compensation where appropriate.”

Article 19 could be used to hold tobacco companies liable for environmental damages and chemical exposures to farmers, as well as manufacturing and transport employees, consumers, and those affected by post-consumer waste.16

However, Malawi, a key tobacco growing country and one of the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of tobacco cultivation, has yet to sign the FCTC.24

Tobacco Tactics Resources

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  1. WHO launches new report on global tobacco use trends, World Health Organization news release, 19 December 2019, accessed April 2020
  2. abA. Appau, J. Drope, F. Witoslar, J.J. Chavez & R. Lencucha, Why Do Farmers Grow Tobacco? A Qualitative Exploration of Farmers Perspectives in Indonesia and Phillipines, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 2019;16(13):2330, doi:10.3390/ijerph16132330
  3. abcdM.C. Kulik, S. A. Bialous, S. Munthall & W. Max, Tobacco growing and the sustainable development goals, Malawi, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 9 February 2017, accessed April 2020
  4. abcdIMC Worldwide, A study on the impacts of tobacco growing and the role it plays in rural livelihoods, British American Tobacco website, 2019, archived February 2020, accessed April 2020
  5. P. Magati, Q. Li, J. Drope, R. Lencucha, R. Labonté, The Economics of Tobacco Farming in Kenya, Nairobi: International Institute for Legislative Affairs and Atlanta: American Cancer Society, May 2016, archived July 2019, accessed April 2020
  6. abTobacco Atlas, Issue: Growing, undated, accessed April 2020
  7. K. Hamade, “Tobacco Leaf Farming in Lebanon: Why Marginalized Farmers Need a Better Option” in Tobacco Control and Tobacco Farming: Separating Myth from Reality, edited by W. Leppan, N. Lecours and D. Buckles, London: Anthem Press, 2014, accessed April 2020
  8. R.E. Kasperson & K. Dow, “Chapter 6: Vulnerable Peoples and Places” in Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends, Volume 1, Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2005, accessed April 2020
  9. Philip Morris International, Agricultural Labor Practices Progress Update: Empowering Women for Change, PMI website, 2020, accessed April 2020
  10. T. Hu, A.H. Lee, Women in Tobacco Farming: Health, Equality and Empowerment, Center for International Tobacco Control, Public Health Institute, October 2016, accessed April 2020
  11. Philip Morris International, Sustainability Report 2018, PMI website, 2019, accessed March 2020
  12. Japan Tobacco International, Sustainability Report 2018, JTI website, 2019, accessed March 2020
  13. British American Tobacco, Sustainability Report 2018, BAT website, 2019, accessed March 2020
  14. Imperial Brands, Sustainability Summary 2019, Imperial Brands website, undated, accessed March 2020
  15. JTI, Future proof farming,  2020, accessed April 2020
  16. abcde]World Health Organization, Tobacco and its environmental impact: an overview, WHO website, 2017, accessed March 2020
  17. AFP, COVID-19 drives tobacco farmers to the brink, Arab News 45, 22 June 2020, accessed June 2020
  18. M. Kadzere, Tobacco stakeholders meet over marketing season, The Herald, 9 April 2020, accessed June 2020
  19. abF. Mutsaka, Troubled Zimbabwe hopes for some relief in tobacco sales, Associated Press in KTXS, 8 May 2020, accessed June 2020
  20. G.J. Ohayo-Mitoko, H. Kromhout, J.M. Simwa, J.S.M. Boleij & D. Heederik, Self-reported symptoms and inhibition of acetylcholinesterase activity among Kenyan agricultural workers, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2000;57(3):195–2000
  21. J.E. Cornwall, M.L. Ford, T.S. Liyanage & D. Win Kyi Daw, Risk assessment and health effects of pesticides used in tobacco farming in MalaysiaHealth Policy & Planning, 1995;10(4):431-437
  22. F. Akhter, F. Mazhar, M.A. Sobhan, P. Baral, S. Shimu, S. Das, et al., From tobacco to food production: Assessing constraints and transition strategies in Bangladesh, Final Technical Report Submitted to the Research for International Tobacco Control (RITC) Program of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ontario, Canada: International Development Research Centre, 2008
  23. World Health Organization, WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, 2003, accessed April 2020
  24. United Nations, Status: 4. WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, UN Treaty Collection, accessed April 2020
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