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Politics as Usual: Tobacco Economics

By Sahani Lungu (Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocate)

Fact, in Malawi, agriculture contributes to 1/3rd of the country’s GDP and up to 80% of the total revenue.  Tobacco is the main cash crop contributing to approximately 47% of the total forex revenue each year. In 2018, tobacco revenue reached a record high of USD 337.5 million,  up from the USD 212.4 million in the previous year, raising it’s forex contribution to 60%. Another fact is tobacco ‘ s success or lack thereof on the market has adverse effects on the Malawi economy. In some quarters tobacco is referred to as a “Political Crop.” The crop itself is politically sensitive,  this is because tobacco revenue has the power to either make or break the country’s economy. The outcome of which is reflected in the country’s inflation economics thereby dictating the direction of mainstream political rhetoric.

It is not surprising therefore that from a political point of view,  there is little effort towards enacting stringent laws or policies that regulate the use of tobacco products. This can be in part, due to to the perceived fear such regulations might have on the country’s tobacco economics. The well known piece of legislation is the “Tobacco Act” which regulates the growing and exportation of tobacco,  mainly because this where the “money is at.” Even at that,  the act mainly covers tobacco production quotas and tobacco pricing and little to do with health protection of smokers,  regulating public smoking or protecting the health of farmers and laborers (who are mostly underage children) who get exposed to nicotine that permeates through the skin when handling tobacco in in the field. Foreign firms buy tobacco from Malawi for use in manufacturing cigarettes. If you have been reading the publications on on this site,  by now you know that there is a worldwide campaign against smoking tobacco cigarettes because of the known harmful effects that nicotine contained in tobacco cigarettes has on the human body.

Using scientific based evidence on the harmful effects of tobacco smoking,  international lobbyists have led anti-smoking advocacy campaigns that have resulted in countries adopting laws and policies that regulate consumption of tobacco products. The World Health Organization (WHO) in its effort to end the tobacco epidemic,  entered into force the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in February 2005. The FCTC provides legal dimension for international health cooperation on regulations that extend to; monitoring use and prevention policies,  protecting people from tobacco use,  offering help to quit tobacco use, warnings about the dangers of tobacco,  enforcing bans on Tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship and also raising taxes on tobacco. In Malawi however, little is being done to implement the provisions of the FCTC. There is no national agency focused on tobacco use control, there are no restrictions on smoking in public places,  advertising or promotion. There is no law that requires tobacco packaging to display a warning or the associated risks. And there are no laws requiring a minimum tobacco exercise tax rate. On the international front, such laws have contributed to a significant drop in the number of people who smoke,  increase in those who attempt to quit and those who quit entirely or adopt other scientifically proven ways of curbing the nicotine urge. As of 2015, it stated that 21% of the word population smoked and it was projected that the figure will drop to 17% by 2030. This inadvertently is contributing to the drop in on the demand and prices of raw tobacco worldwide. For Malawi (a country largely dependent on Tobacco exports and in the  top ten of the largest tobacco growers in the world),  this not a good sign both politically and economically. Even though tobacco revenue was at a record high this year, government cannot guarantee the same for next year or in the long-run.

This year,  Malawi through the Tobacco Association of Malawi eyed for a slot at the FCTC. This need for a seat at the table was not as one would assume to discuss how Malawi will implement measures to safeguard the health of the population from tobacco harm. Their need for a seat was to, as they framed it as “to enhance a strategic exist of the industry and preserve the economic wellbeing of growers in in the country. At the surface, protecting the poor farmers is all noble and good, but the bottom line is they were aiming to safeguard the economic and political interests of the country. This because WHO is known to make drastic decisions with regards to meeting the set goals  of the FCTC.

It should be noted that Malawi is not and cannot be invisible to the pressure from anti-smoking lobbyists. It is high time Malawi had had a real political discussion on the need to first of all adopt policies that protect its people from the harmful effects of tobacco (which leads to up to 5, 700 related preventable deaths annually) right from the field during during the handling of tobacco and also regulate the consumption of tobacco. Secondly,  the country needs to boost up efforts towards the finding and  farming of substitute cash crop a in order to reduce the tobacco over reliance. Better yet,  the country can invest in developing other areas such as the service industry, industrialization and tourism so as to maximize their forex earning capacity.

Phiri F, Stoddard E & Fenton S (2018) Malawi Tobacco Revenue Jumps 60 Pct This Year. Retrieved from:

Mzale D (2014) Tobacco Contribution Down to 47%. Retrieved from:

Jimu C (2016) Malawi Vows to Continue Growing Tobacco. Retrieved from:

World Health Organization (2018) Tobacco. Retrieved from:

Statista (2018) Smoking- Statistics & Facts. Retrieved from:

Mangazi C (2018) Tama Eyes FCTC Slot. Retrieved from:

Drope J, Makoka D, Lencucha R & Appau A (2016) Farm-Level Economics of Tobacco Production in Malawi. Revised edition.  Presented by: Center for Agricultural Research and Development (CARD). Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR).

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1 Comment

  1. Vita Mithi

    Politicians in Malawi milk alot from tobacco so they cannot put place laws to regulate tobacco products. There is need for international agencies to come up ways that can make tobacco unfavorable on the market.

    Furthermore, evidence based research may help.trigger change as long as right facts are presented to policy makers.

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