The cost of tobacco production is nearly Tk10,000 higher than that of any vegetable, but growing vegetables is two to three times more profitable
The Bangladesh government is committed to reducing tobacco consumption and cultivation, but is unable to take stern action as its current policy favours tobacco companies.
Recent studies show that revenue from tobacco cultivation is much less than the cost on health from tobacco use and agricultural hazards, said speakers at a program on Sunday.
The way government is working to control tobacco uses is going in favour of the companies, instead of creating pressure on them to curb tobacco consumption, the speakers said.
The tobacco companies continue to lure farmers to cultivate tobacco with temptation of high profits, they added.
The program was organized by Palli Bidyut Karma Sahayak Foundation (PKSF), and Bangladesh Anti Tobacco Alliance (BATA), at PKSF auditorium in Dhaka to mark World No Tobacco Day 2019.
Dr Sharif Ahmad Chowdhury, managing director of PKSF, said research shows that tobacco growing areas are expanding by 5,085 acres, whileyields are increasing by 5,791 tons every year.
The cost of tobacco production is nearly Tk10,000 higher than that of any vegetable, but growing vegetables is two to three times more profitable.
A recent research-based book, titled “Economic cost of tobacco use in Bangladesh: A health cost approach”, published this year by Bangladesh Cancer Society, says some 125,000 people die from tobacco use directly or indirectly.
Among them, second-hand smoking causes 24,757 deaths, the study adds.
The government in 2017-2018 fiscal year earned Tk 22,810 crore as revenue from the tobacco sector. During the same period, economic loss caused by tobacco usage and second-hand smoking stood at Tk 30,570 crore. Environmental hazards of tobacco cultivation and smoking were not even measured, it said.
Fouzul Kabir Master, a farmer from Chakaria in Cox's Bazar who was forced to engage in tobacco cultivation following a devastating cyclone decades ago, said he has recently given up growing tobacco and switched to vegetable production, after realizing the high profits to be made from it.
"I was wrong in assuming that tobacco cultivation was giving me more profit. But after cultivating vegetables as an alternative earning source, I got much more profit. So, I have left tobacco cultivation."
Few other farmers who have left tobacco cultivation echoed the same opinion. At the program, along with Fouzul Kabir, they resolved that they would never return to tobacco cultivation.
Dr Shahid Uj Jaman, executive director of USDO, Rabiul Islam, executive director of Disha, JM Nazimuddin Akkel, executive director of Kushtia-based NGO Action for Human Development Organization (AHDO), researcher Sayeda Sajia Hossain Rumpa, and some other speakers had similar views.
They spoke about alternative sources of livelihood for farmers, institutional mechanism to stop tobacco cultivation, legal compliance in the arena, creating awareness, health hazards like birth defects, long-term effects on local people, and farmers’ health.
Researcher Sayeda Sajia said during her research in Ali Kadam area, she observed that tobacco farmers get detached from social life and they do not take part in any social programs.
Nazimuddin said as children are cheaper sources of labour, family members bar them from going to school and force them to work in tobacco farms, hampering their education and health.
Big Gen (rtd) Abdul Malik stressed the need for coordinated efforts to curb tobacco cultivation to make the country tobacco free.
Kholiquzzaman, president of PKSF, said the tobacco companies, against whom they are working, are very strong. They are luring the farmers and misleading them. “Our young generation is getting mislead through tobacco abuse and they are destroying themselves,” he said.
Tobacco a hindrance
If we cannot provide the children with proper education and health, the nation will be deprived of a skilled labour force and tobacco would be the first and most strong hindrance, the speakers said.
PKSF Managing Director Sharif Ahmad recommended finalizing and publishing a tobacco control policy by the Ministry of Agriculture and ensuring its immediate implementation, as well as ensuring better marketing for vegetables and agricultural products, especially those that are alternatives to tobacco cultivation. He also emphasized on creating mass awareness among farmers about the bad effects of tobacco farming.
Agriculture Minister Abdur Razzak said that the government is going through a complex situation as a number of multi-dimensional programs is being sustained here.
He admitted that Tk22,800 crore in revenue is still a huge amount for the government as it is a visible inclusion. But none can clearly see the health issues. So, it remains untouched. “We need other sources to cover the taxes,” he said.
He emphasized on proper collection and allocation of revenue to the citizens to minimize the problem.
Marketing and providing moderate profits to the farmers is still a challenge, he pointed out.
"If we cannot find greater domestic and international markets, we would not be able to make profit from agricultural products. And if we cannot make our agricultural products profitable, we cannot stop tobacco cultivation. The farmers will continue to engage in tobacco cultivation."
He, however, said if the government can work in accordance with its plan, Bangladesh can make the country free from tobacco much before 2041.