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Crop Substitution in China: Curbing Tobacco Production

About the Initiative

  • Tobacco is responsible for about 1 in 10 deaths worldwide – about 5 million deaths per year.  Smoking increases the risk of a number of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, lung cancer, cancers of the mouth and pancreatic cancer.
  • In China, approximately 1 million deaths each year are attributed to tobacco consumption.
  • China is the world’s largest producer of tobacco crops, and China’s Yunnan province is one of the country’s least developed, but one of the largest producers of tobacco in the country.
  • Yunnan province is home to 30% of China’s 15 million tobacco-producing households.
  • In the rural areas around Kunming, Yunnan province’s largest city, many farmers grow tobacco crops as their source of livelihood.
  • Dr. Virginia Li of the Fielding School of Public Health has led a crop substitution initiative in the area, in collaboration with the local bureau of agriculture.
  • In 2008, as part of this initiative, 450 families in the area agreed to stop growing tobacco and grow another crop instead.  Instead of growing tobacco, farmers grew crops such as flowers, vegetables, arrowhead and grapes.
  • Farmers formed for-profit cooperatives, which helped them to take advantage of economies of scale and get their crops to market.


  • Over the period of three years, every crop at every site succeeded in earning a higher income for the farmers.

Farmers earned between 20% and 115% more income than they had been earning from farming tobacco crops.

  • Dr. Li and her collaborators successfully showed farmers that cultivating crops other than tobacco could be more profitable. These higher profits offer farmers incentives to stop producing tobacco and to instead produce other crops.
  • While large-scale crop substitution will take time, and tobacco is still a large part of the Chinese economy, this project is an important first step in addressing the public health issue of tobacco at its root: by curbing the growth of tobacco crops.
  • If crop substitution under the cooperative model can be successfully replicated in other parts of China and in other countries, there is tremendous potential to persuade large portions of the world’s 30 million tobacco farmers to produce other crops and reduce tobacco production worldwide.

Virginia C. Li