July/August 1987 - VOLUME 8 - NUMBERS 7 & 8
T H E T O B A C C O T R A P
Zimbabwe's Tobacco Addiction
by Colleen Lowe Morna
HARARE, Zimbabwe - Opening a new tobacco auction floor last year- the largest and most modem such facility in the world - Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Robert Mugabe put aside his prepared speech for a moment to share some confidential thoughts, which were gratefully recorded by the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association (ZTA).
"Some three weeks ago, after some members of the tobacco industry had approached me, I had a discussion with my minister of health and others in a delegation about to go to the World Health Assembly in Geneva," said the Jesuit-trained Prime Minister, a strict nonsmoker and teetotaler himself. At the Assembly, Zimbabwe would be expected to make a decision on whether it "would join those who discourage or do not work to promote tobacco," Mugabe said.
"I told my minister that in regard to health principles, certainly we must be seen to be together with the rest of the world. But we also have economic principles to take care of. When we were growing up, our parents, our mothers (certainly, my mother), and our teachers forbade us to smoke. But one thing they never said was: `Don't sell tobacco.' If we sell it and others smoke it, is there anything wrong? If we sell it, we must grow it as well. It is our industry and we must support it."
With such strong government backing and little internal opposition, Zimbabwe is today the world's third-largest exporter of flue-cured tobacco. One-quarter of all the country's foreign currency earnings come from tobacco sales.
Indeed, tobacco's main troubles in Zimbabwe come from the double curse of drought and stiff overseas competition, factors which will probably lead to a decline in tobacco earnings this year for the first time since the country gained its independence in 1980.
In the long term, however, Zimbabweans know that the antismoking movement is causing a gradual decline in demand for the country's largest export. Like many other large tobacco-producing countries, Zimbabwe is looking to its neighbors in the southern hemisphere, where the appetite for smoking is growing, for alternative markets.
When the first while settlers arrived in this southern African country in 1890, they found the local Shona-speaking people growing a primitive type of tobacco that was probably intro duced by the Portuguese. Because of the favorable climate and the growing demand for tobacco in the West, several white farmers soon began growing tobacco commercially, concentrat ing mainly on the high quality, Virginia flue-cured variety. Today, 1,469 of Zimbabwe's 4000 - mostly white - commercial farmers grow tobacco.
By law, all flue-cured tobacco growers belong to the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association, which conducts research and disseminates information about tobacco without receiving government subsidies. Most tobacco farmers borrow from local commercial banks, although some go to the parastatal Agriculture Finance Corporation for loans. Since international bodies like the World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) provide funds mainly to small farmers who are just beginning to grow tobacco, the industry is virtually independent of external financing.
About 98 percent of Zimbabwe's tobacco is exported to a total of 70 countries, its largest single market is the European Economic Community. Most overseas customers place their orders through one of the 23 merchant companies registered as members of the Tobacco Trade Association. About one third of these are wholly owned by Zimbabweans. The rest are branches of multinational corporations that have local shareholders. More than half a dozen U.S. tobacco companies have holdings in Zimbabwe, including W.A. Adams of Oxford, North Carolina; Standard Commercial Tobacco Co. of Wilson, North Carolina; and Universal Leaf Tobacco Co. of Richmond, Virginia.
Within the country, two locally registered British conglomer ates, BAT (British American Tobacco) Zimbabwe and Roth mans of Pall Mall Zimbabwe, manufacture a full range of tobacco products, mostly for domestic consumption.
The country's tobacco business is coordinated through the Tobacco Industry Council. Its job is to maintain "links with the tobacco industry worldwide, representing the Zimbabwean in dustry on matters of mutual concern," according to Chief Execu tive Maurice Rooney.
The health campaign against smoking is one of these matters of mutual concern.
"Overseas, it has become a real issue," says Rooney. "At home, not yet."
In addition to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which campaigns against smoking by its members, two other organizations try to stop the addictive habit: the local Cancer Association and a recently formed subcommittee of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Department in the Ministry of Health.
The antismoking groups admit that they have not made much progress. Zimbabwe's reliance on tobacco for its financial wellbeing makes even the discussion of antismoking campaigns a politically sensitive issue.
Each year, the crop provides farmers with $180 million in revenue. Another S 162 million goes to the middlemen before the crop leaves the country. In all, the tobacco industry accounts for 22 percent of Zimbabwe's export earnings, 12 percent of the gross domestic product and 10 percent of the country's jobs. Cigarettes also bring the government some S24 million annually in excise duties.
"We've costed it all out," says Rooney. "No other crop, except maybe marijuana, can earn as much foreign exchange and employ as many people as tobacco."
And in Zimbabwe, tobacco does not come under fire for crowding out vital food crops as it does in other developing nations. Of Zimbabwe's 75 million acres of agricultural land, 31 million acres are commercial farmland. Only 158,000 acres are devoted to growing tobacco; moreover, since independence, Zimbabwe has produced vast surpluses of corn, its staple food.
Health officials are hesitant to do more than state the obvious.
"When we had our first meeting to discuss setting up a committee on smoking, there was a lot of argument," says an official of the alcohol and drug abuse section of the Health Ministry. "There was a feeling we should not be seen to be attacking the goose that lays the golden eggs. Eventually, we all managed to agree that tobacco is a drug, and that people need to be informed about the harmful effects of smoking."
For the time being, the subcommittee intends to limit itself to a public-awareness campaign.
"Anything to do with legislation would have to come much later," says the official.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO), which conducts vigorous antismoking campaigns in most developing nations, has taken a back seat in Zimbabwe. "We don't get involved in that sphere in Zimbabwe," says a WHO spokesperson.
Where the government's silent censure hasn't worked, the tobacco farmers and tobacco companies' money has.
One Cancer Association official admits that the organization receives "handsome donations" from the tobacco industry. The donations figured prominently in a recent decision by the association not to push for a no-smoking day. "You can't bite the hand that feeds you," the official explained.
The Alcohol and Drug Abuse sub committee is in a similar quandary. Both Rothmans and BAT sponsor sports and cultural activities in poorer, highly populated areas. "They are associated with charitable causes," a subcommittee member says. "It is going to be very difficult to persuade anyone that they are up to no good."
Health officials don't have reliable statistics on the prevalence of smoking and its effects in Zimbabwe. Harare's Masin Parirenyatwa Hospital established the country's first tumor registry last year, but the data haven't been released yet. Dr. Lorraine Levy, who heads the research team, says preliminary evidence shows that lung cancer is among the top four cancers in Zimbabwe, "and it is very unusual in patients who don't smoke." She estimates that well over half of Zimbab wean men smoke.
In Europe, where Zimbabwe sells about half of its tobacco crop every year, it's a different story. Although Zimbabweans disagree as to whether the antismoking lobby or the imposition of higher excise duties is chiefly responsible, Zimbabwe's exports to Europe fell by 2 percent last year.
"We are very much affected by the antismoking campaign," says Rooney, who monitors it closely and has an office full of the latest literature on the subject. "Every cigarette not smoked simply means less business for us."
Zimbabwe has not launched a campaign to counter the adverse publicity overseas, although it is a member of international tobacco associations that do fight the antismoking lobby. The Tobacco Industry Council keeps in close touch with organizations like the Tobacco Institute in Washington, D.C. "We collaborate with them and help them lobby WHO, the FAD and our government," Rooney says.
The greying chief executive, who admits that he quit smoking a few years ago, is suspect of antismoking activists. "There is a terrible amount of emotionalism involved in this and a lot of huge globular figures that exaggerate the health hazards," he says.
But for right now, at least, Zimbabwe's tobacco growers are more concerned with the weather than with the antismoking lobby.
While tobacco is generally drought-resistant, this year Zimbabwe has experienced its worst drought in 40 years. The unusually high temperatures and lack of rain produced a poorquality crop with a high nicotine content, a combination that could prove disastrous for Zimbabwe's farmers.
"There are reports that as many as 10 to 15 percent of the tobacco farmers are in `serious financial trouble' and many have expressed concern about their ability to raise necessary financing for the next season's planting," notes a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
At the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association's (ZTA) 27th annual congress in Harare on June 4 of this year, members and government officials sat on the edge of their seats - smoking furiously - as ZTA President Jeremy Webb-Martin read one of the most depressing reports on the tobacco industry since independence.
One third of the way through the selling season, tobacco is fetching an average price of $1.20 per kilogram, well below the $1.84 per kilogram deemed necessary for farmers to break even.
Globally, tobacco is plentiful, and that brings the price down for Zimbabwe's farmers. Brazil, the world's second-largest exporter of tobacco, has had an outstanding crop. The United States, the world's largest producer, has a huge stockpile that it is selling on the world market. The poor quality of this year's crop has made the price of tobacco even lower.
To make matters worse, the U.S. government has reduced its price support for tobacco, which has lowered the price of tobacco on world markets.
Webb-Martin says that "Zimbabwe's tobacco farmers may receive $36 million less in revenue than last year." The future looks bleak. "A major catastrophe will occur if we don't have a good year next year," says Webb-Martin.
Mervyn Ellis, an economist with the Standard Merchant Bank, which makes substantial loans to tobacco farmers, be lieves the tobacco industry will have to adapt to changing consumption patterns if it is to thrive.
"The tobacco industry in Zimbabwe," he says, "has always been directed toward First World markets, where consumption is declining by 1 percent a year. In developing countries, it is increasing by 2 percent annually. The problem with selling to Third World countries is that they are not able to pay in hard currency. This calls for new financing methods and a whole lot of innovation. It's a question of whether the industry will be able to adapt."
Already there are signs of change. Last year Zimbabwe's tobacco sales to Africa and the Far East each increased by 15 percent. Together the two areas accounted for nearly one quarter of Zimbabwe's total sales. As Webb-Martin puts it, "If every Chinese smoked one more cigarette a day our problems would be over."
Colleenn Lowe Morna is a Zimbabwean freelance journalist based in Harare. This article from South-North Features was written exclusively for the Multinational Monitor.