Tobacco Free Initiative

#notobacco!: From tobacco to roses - Successful crop substitution in Yunnan province, China

Tobacco farming is a massive global undertaking. In 2012, it involved at least 124 countries, producing nearly 8 million tonnes of tobacco leaf on 4.3 million hectares of agricultural land. In the previous decades, global tobacco companies lowered production costs by shifting tobacco leaf production from high-income countries to low- and middle-income countries. Currently, around 90% of tobacco farming takes place in low- and middle-income countries. Of those, Brazil, China and India are the largest growers of tobacco leaf, with China at 3.2 million tonnes, being the largest producer.

Behind China's enormous tobacco production are the millions of farmers whose livelihoods depend on agricultural production. Yunnan province is China’s largest tobacco-producing region. One of the largest cigarette production facilities in Asia is located in Yuxi municipality, 85 kilometres south of the capital Kunming. Hongta district in particular used to be the epicentre of tobacco leaf farming.

In 2008, the Yuxi Bureau of Agriculture and the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California at Los Angeles initiated a three-year tobacco crop substitution project at three sites involving 458 farm families. The project engaged farmers in cooperatives to substitute high-value food crops for tobacco, ultimately increasing farmers’ annual income between 21% and 110% per acre. What is especially encouraging is how many locations beyond the three original project sites have now adopted the same model – with equally positive results.

Former tobacco farmland now used for growing spring onions and grapes in Hongta District
WHO/K. Khow
WHO/K. Khow

A farmer in Hongta district who now cultivates spring onions, recounts how his income has increased by 4–6 times since switching from tobacco.
WHO/K. Khow

Representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO) in China recently visited Yunnan and spoke to former tobacco leaf farmer Mr Duan, 41 years old. Mr Duan abandoned tobacco planting almost a decade ago and has seen his income and business grow exponentially eversince. He is now a successful farmer with a thriving potted fresh flowers business in China, even exporting overseas. Mr Duan said that his quality of life and that of his family of six have improved tremendously because of the increased income.

Mr Duan’s potted rose farm now employs scores of employees and produces over 600 000 potted flowers in over 20 colours per season.
WHO/K. Khow
WHO/K. Khow
Former tobacco farmer, Mr Duan, standing proudly amid his blossoming and thriving flower farm.
WHO/K. Khow

Farmers and their livelihoods are often used as an excuse as to why China cannot embrace more comprehensive tobacco control. The example of Mr Duan strongly disputes that argument. Furthermore, a recent report published jointly by WHO and the United Nations Development Programme highlights the growing health, economic and social costs of tobacco use in China and raises concerns about its impact on the long-term sustainable development of the country.

Given the influence that the tobacco industry holds in China, particularly in Yunnan province, Mr Duan's experience gives hope that positive change is possible and that someday China will be able to reduce its reliance on the tobacco economy and embrace a cleaner, greener and more sustainable economy for the health of its people.

To download the report: