Growing Tobacco

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Call To Action

International organizations and national governments must help tobacco farmers to ease the transition to alternative crops beyond tobacco.

Production by country: area in hectares, 2012

Tobacco leaf is grown in at least 124 of the world’s countries. In 2012, nearly 7.5 million tonnes of tobacco leaf was grown on almost 4.3 million hectares of agricultural land, an area larger than Switzerland. China is the world’s leader in tobacco production, with 3.2 million tonnes of tobacco leaf grown in 2012.

In the same way that consumers are addicted to nicotine, tobacco farmers are trapped in a vicious cycle of growing tobacco, which tobacco companies exploit. Tobacco companies are often the major buyers in countries, setting the price and process of selling tobacco and requiring enormous labor and land inputs. Moreover, the tobacco companies typically supply inputs very readily, but at above-market prices and on poor credit terms that are unfavorable to the farmers.

Over the past 50 years, tobacco farming has shifted from high- to low- and middle-income countries. During this time, Africa has seen a significant increase in tobacco farming. More than 20 African countries grow tobacco. Many farmers and government officials believe that tobacco is a cash crop essential to their economic success. The short-term benefits of a crop that generates cash for farmers are offset by the long-term consequences of increased food insecurity, frequent sustained debt, environmental damage, and illness and poverty among farm workers.

Food insecurity and poverty is a concern in many of the world’s largest tobacco-growing countries. In October 2013, an expert meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO FCTC discussed economically sustainable alternatives to growing tobacco. Because the transition from growing tobacco to growing healthful food products can be difficult and complex, support from governments and international organizations is necessary to break the cycle of poverty and illness resulting from growing tobacco.

Tobacco and Undernourishment

Countries that are among the top 25 tobacco leaf producing countries AND have more than 10% undernourishment

The populations in many of the top tobacco-growing nations suffer from undernourishment.

A U.S. study found that nearly three quarters of children aged 7-17 who were laboring in tobacco fields in the USA experienced symptoms of green tobacco sickness.

This is ironic as it is illegal for children under 18 to purchase cigarettes, yet they can be employed in tobacco fields and experience illness from their labors.

“The hardest of all the crops we’ve worked in is tobacco. You get tired. It takes the energy out of you. You get sick, but then you have to go right back to the tobacco the next day.” —Dario A., 16-year-old tobacco worker in Kentucky, USA, 2013

“R.J. Reynolds doesn’t employ farm workers or grow its own tobacco. Because FARM WORKERS ARE NOT OUR EMPLOYEES, we have no direct control over their sourcing, their training, their pay rates, or their housing and access to human services.” –R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, 2014

Alternative Crop Case Studies


Crop substitution is a viable and lucrative alternative to growing tobacco. However, while some countries have had success, others are struggling.

China’s Alternative Crop Experience

In 2008, a tobacco crop substitution pilot project began among more than 450 families in the Yuxi municipality of the Yunnan Province in China. In 2010, farmers increased their annual profit per acre by up to 110% by growing other crops.

Kenya’s Alternative Crop Experience

The Tobacco To Bamboo Project, which began in Kenya in 2006, has shown that shifting to bamboo growing is possible due to farmer willingness and training at the community level. It is estimated that annual income from bamboo farming will be 4–5 times higher than tobacco at farm gate prices, and 10 times higher when processed at the community level to make products such as baskets, furniture, etc.

Room for Improvement with Alternative Crops

Only 15% of WHO FCTC parties that completed a 2014 implementation report and that grow tobacco reported the presence of support for viable alternatives for tobacco growers. Five percent reported alternatives being promoted for tobacco workers, and only 3% reported alternatives being promoted for tobacco sellers. Much progress is needed worldwide in promoting and providing the resources for countries to transition to economically viable alternatives to tobacco growing.

Production Trends

Trends in tobacco production (in metric tonnes) by the major tobacco-producing countries

In 1980, China’s tobacco production was similar to other major producers. Since that time, China has tripled its tobacco production.

Government Subsidies

The role of farming subsidies in tobacco growing, Poland

In Poland, a substantial amount of the money that tobacco farmers receive is from government subsidies.



Kasperowicz B. Response to Mr. Stoklosa’s Request for Public Information from January 18, 2013. Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in Poland; 2013.

Central Statistical Office in Poland. Statistical Yearbook of Agriculture 2011. 2011.

China grows tobacco on more agricultural land than that of India, Brazil, Indonesia, Malawi and United Republic of Tanzania combined.


According to a U.S. Department of Labor 2012 report, 16 countries use child labor in the production of tobacco.

Land Use

Countries who dedicated 1% or more of arable land to growing tobacco, 2011

7.5% | LEBANON
4.5% | MALAWI
2.3% | DPR KOREA
1.7% | ZAMBIA
1.3% | JORDAN
1.3% | CHINA

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