In a paradox, smoking has contributed to the progression of jurisprudence.
In August 1980 James Miller was squatting in a house in Birmingham, England. Miller lit a cigarette while in bed, fell asleep and woke up to find the mattress on fire.
He got up, went to the next room and fell asleep. He later woke up to find the building on fire and, because he didn’t have anything to help put out the fire, he just left it!
The then UK House of Lords convicted Miller of arson for his omission to take any steps to put out the fire or his failure in a duty of care to seek help.
Thus, the principle that an omission to act can constitute actus rues for criminal liability was established. All this from a cigarette!
Yet the same safety concerns from smoking remain ever present among us along with the immediate health concerns.
The double risk of having a heart attack, impotence in men, increased risk of osteoporosis in women, 50 percent risk of having a stroke, premature ageing of skin by 10 to 20 years and most horrifying, increased risk of cancer in lips, tongue, throat, voice box and oesophagus.
Although over the years the obvious cohort to be warned is the smokers, little focus has been given to the effects of tobacco on farmers, with the environment even taking a precedent.
The Tobacco Control Act 2007 has a provision promoting research and dissemination of information on the hazardous effects of tobacco production.
Shockingly, many tobacco farmers suffer from green tobacco sickness, a type of nicotine poisoning when nicotine is absorbed through the skin from wet tobacco leaves.
It is a high risk to farmers, especially if they harvest tobacco when it is wet.
Peculiarly, the symptoms the farmers experience are similar to those smokers have from nicotine addiction and withdrawal, which is rather ironic.
These include nausea, weakness, dizziness, abdominal cramps, and fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rate. Tobacco farming is thus an occupational health hazard.
The health risks from tobacco farming are one of the key factors making the industry less attractive for farmers.
We have agreed in law to protect the health of the individual considering conclusive scientific evidence implicating tobacco production.
How then are we progressively protecting tobacco farmers and assisting with their healthcare while we seek the economic benefits from tobacco?
These include: 0.04 percent of agricultural land is devoted to tobacco cultivation and in 2014; 8,991 metric tons of tobacco were produced in Kenya.
Some 17.14 billion cigarettes were consequently produced in 2016. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics 2014 report, tobacco accounted for seven percent of Kenya’s GDP.
To round it off, more than Sh1.7 billion is paid to farmers in Migori County annually, and they account for 70 percent of the tobacco produced in Kenya.
Tobacco is undisputedly a significant contributor to Kenya’s economy.
Education on protective measures such as avoiding handling wet tobacco, changing out of wet clothes saturated in moisture from the tobacco and wearing personal protective equipment is a start.
However, once the farmers are exposed and contract green tobacco sickness, the onus of their health cannot fall entirely on them when they are catering to an international multibillion dollar industry that generated USD 346 billion in 2016.
A significant solution would be to put policies in place requiring the leaf buyers to cater to the safety and medical needs of farmers.
Easy as that proposition sounds, the farmers first need buyers, which is the second cause of reduced interest in tobacco production.
With the significant and renewed partnerships between Kenya and the USA, this is the opportune time to revisit the Alliance One Tobacco Company as a buyer.
The USA company was the biggest tobacco leaf buyer in Kenya before its departure in 2016.
The company moved to Uganda and Zimbabwe arguing that the leaf is cheaper and of higher quality there.
Are these issues that can be addressed to renew this pre-requisite partnership? Or have we reached a point where tobacco farmers are better off pursing other cash crops?
After all, smoking kills 36 women in Kenya every week. Some 4,200 girls aged between 10-14 years and 119,000 15 plus year-old women are currently smokers.
Conversely, 14,300 boys aged between 10-14 years and 2,043,300 15 year-old plus men smoke cigarettes each day, making it an ongoing and dire public health threat.
Even worse, 120 men die each week from smoking. These numbers are significantly high for an avoidable cause of death.
Are the benefits of tobacco farming, production and export outweighing the risks that endanger farmers seeking an income and lives being lost?