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Monday, August 17, 2009

Nigeria Considers Tough Tobacco Control Legislation

-Gilbert da Costa

The Nigerian parliament is currently debating sweeping new tobacco control legislation in a bid to break the growing tobacco addiction in the country. The bill has strong backing from anti-tobacco groups and health organizations.

"Change starts from now. I dare to be different. I will remain smoke-free. I am the future, and the future starts now, So help me God. I am smoke free!!!," recite students at Shepherd Secondary School in Ketu in Lagos.

Students of the Shepherd Secondary School in Ketu, a poor neighborhood in Nigeria's sprawling city of Lagos, recite a "no-smoking pledge" at the end of a two-hour anti-tobacco lecture. The program is part of a grassroots initiative by anti-tobacco campaigners to counter growing cigarette smoking, particularly among teens in Nigeria.

About 25 percent of Nigerian teens, some as young as 10, are hooked on tobacco, double the smoking rate among men.

Salau Moshood, a 17-year-old student, told VOA what he learned."

I heard that smoking is not good for people at the age of 10 years and upwards," said Salau Moshood. "It makes them to die young, and makes them not to reach the place they supposed to reach. My advice for people that smoke is that they have to stop it because, if they don't stop it, they will have something that will affect them in their future."

Individual cigarettes sells for as little as seven cents each, and analysts fear that tobacco use in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation of 140 million people, could continue to rise.

The Nigerian parliament has responded with a tobacco control bill that would impose smoking bans, increase taxes and impose advertising restrictions. If passed, this could be the biggest tobacco crackdown in the history of Nigeria.

The sponsor of the bill, Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora, told VOA that the assembly has a duty to protect the health of Nigerians."

Under Section 14 of our constitution, we have an obligation, which we all swore to, in terms of upholding the provisions of the constitution," said Senator Mamora. "That section says, the welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government. So, we just need to safeguard the welfare of the people. It is important to us."

Even the Nigerian government, which previously granted generous concessions to tobacco companies, has withdrawn its support and filed a $45-billion suit against tobacco companies for allegedly targeting young Nigerians.

Senator Mamora says of the tobacco industry:"

They are no more than merchants of death, as far as I am concerned," he said.But not everyone is enthusiastic about a tobacco crackdown in Nigeria. A group of tobacco farmers from the southwest issued a passionate appeal to the senate committee on health during its just-concluded public hearing on the bill. The farmers asked legislators to consider the plight of thousands of poor tobacco farmers. Okeke Abiola spoke for the group.

"Our concern is that, if tobacco growing is banned without any alternatives - and I must mention quickly that we don't have any industry in Okeogu area, nothing other than this tobacco growing - we are concerned that without any alternatives, we will be the ones to bear the brunt," said Okeke Abiola. "For instance, if tobacco growing is banned, instantly 300,000 farmers will be affected.

"The World Health Organization says more than 80 percent of tobacco deaths will be in developing countries by 2030.