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Saturday, July 31, 2010

War against tobacco thickens in Nigeria

Tobacco control activists in Nigeria are calling for the passage of Nigeria Tobacco Control Bill sponsored by Senator Olorunnibe Mamora even as the British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) battles opposition from several fronts.Up till this time things have worked perfectly for  members of the tobacco control community in  Nigeria. Led by the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, the members have fought a relentless battle against the unregulated tobacco market in Nigeria. Sometimes too they have challenged the Nigerian government over its decision to invite the British American Tobacco (BAT) in 2001 into the country in an investment worth $150 million tobacco manufacturing plant in Oyo State.
Victory comes in trickles for the NTCA and its members. The Nigerian regulators soon banned smoking advertisements in the media, which was soon to be followed by some other forms of marketing restrictions in 2004. But the biggest stories of the tobacco control battle in Nigeria would come later.
In February 2009, Deputy Minority leader of the Nigerian Senate, Senator Olorunnibe Mamora, was on the floor of the Senate to present a bill entitled “A Bill for an Act to Repeal the Tobacco (Control) Act 1990 Cap T16 Laws of the Federation and to Enact the National Tobacco Control Bill.” It provided for the regulation or control of production, manufacture, sale, advertising, promotion, sponsorship of tobacco or tobacco products in Nigeria. The bill as proposed by the senator also seeks to domesticate the World Health Organizations Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC), a global treaty signed and ratified by Nigeria in October 2005.
Mamora, a two term senator from Lagos and a major player in the Senate knew his bill would face stiff opposition from the tobacco manufacturers and lobbyists, but he would be banking on his popularity and goodwill amongst his colleagues in the Nigerian upper legislative house. Mamora began by establishing the dangers in smoking, the inadequacy of Nigeria's health sector to cope with a tobacco epidemic. He progressed by reeling out statistics on the dangers associated with the use of tobacco products and how Nigeria is still unprepared to manage a tobacco epidemic. He also listed  Nigeria's obligation to domesticate the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a World Health Organization (WHO) instrument to curb the global tobacco epidemic. Nigeria is a party to the convention having ratified the treaty in New York in October 2005. Mamora  then appealed to his colleagues, he touched a soft spot in the Senate: the constitutional duty of the Senate.
"A sober consideration for us as lawmakers is that it is not just a question of pro-activity when we pass this law; it is a constitutional duty and responsibility. Our constitution mandates us under its Chapter 11, The Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy, to enact laws to protect all vulnerable groups, our community, the society and the environment."
The senators listened to Mamora and while referring the bill to the Senate Committee on Health, Senate President David Mark, warned the members against the manipulations and lobbying of the tobacco industry who may try to derail the passage of the bill.
Outside the National Assembly, tobacco control groups are strategizing. A prominent member of the group is Akinbode Oluwafemi, programme manager of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN).  For most of his career, Akinbode has been fighting the tobacco industry and has been campaigning for tobacco control. He is instrumental to almost all tobacco control policies in Nigeria.  Akinbode was there at the beginning when the tobacco industry went unchallenged in Nigeria and the country became a dumping ground of sorts for the tobacco industry. But the story has changed and this is how it happened.
The tobacco industry in Nigeria On September 24, 2001, former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo in his quest for Foreign Direct Investment signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the British American Tobacco (BAT) at the Park Lane Hotel London. The deal was worth $150 million and it involves the establishment of a cigarette manufacturing factory in Nigeria. The tobacco merchants promised thousands of jobs to Nigerians and were given generous concessions and a free hand to manufacture, sell, market and distribute tobacco products in the country.  The deal was signed, sealed and delivered but to the disbelief and anger of public health advocates in Nigeria. One of the protesting voices belongs to Oluwafemi.
"That was the first mistake of the Nigerian government, inviting the tobacco industry to Nigeria when it has become  a discredited industry and the truth is that government legislation  and control of its activities have made it difficult to do business in the Western countries, unfortunately the industry has turned to the developing world for survival," Akinbode told News Star.
The formal entrance of BAT into the Nigerian market was shrouded in mystery.  Internal documents of the company which were made available to News Star show that the company had been involved in cigarette smuggling into the country long before 2001. 
Internal documents also reveal that BAT had conducted a survey with the intention of determining the smoking pattern of Nigerian youths. A result of the survey shows that young people began to smoke around the age of nine. "New smokers enter the "market" at a very early age in many cases, as young as 8 or 9 years seems to be quite common." Continuing, it was admitted that most of the respondents of the survey had started smoking before they left junior school." 
Between 2001 and 2004, BAT's operation took an interesting dimension. The company employed several marketing, advertising tactics to market its products. The company organized series of musical events, fashion shows, street carnivals and even used Hollywood movies to promote Rothmans in the Experience IT campaign. At these events, underage persons were allegedly encouraged to smoke cigarettes before they gain entrance into the venues while inside free supply of cigarettes was ensured.  Tobacco control activists accused the company of employing "severely damaging tactics" that were no longer acceptable in the United States  and other developed countries to market aggressively to young people in Nigeria.  
The result of this, according to a statement from ERA/FoEN, is an alarming increase in the number of young people who are addicted to smoking. Investigations reveal that the company still engages in direct advertising to young people through a series of secret night parties organized in several parts of Nigeria.  Cigarettes are also still being sold in sticks which, according to the civil society, makes it accessible to young people.  The groups also want an increase in taxes on all tobacco products to discourage young people from starting out. 
BAT denies all the allegation which has also formed a part of the litigation in Nigeria.

A global epidemic
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), tobacco currently kills 5.4 million people every year globally and if left unchecked this number will increase to 8 million with devastating results for developing countries which will contribute about 80 per cent of that casualty. If in the 20th century the tobacco epidemic killed 100 million people WHO says in the 21st century, it could kill one billion people.
Tobacco has also been said to be the only consumer product that is guaranteed to kill half of its regular users if used according to the manufacturers instructions. According to Olufunmi Shaba of the African Tobacco Control  Regional Initiative (ATCRI), a tobacco research institute based in Nigeria, "Tobacco use is a risk factor in six of the eight cancers in the world. A single stick contains more than four thousand carcinogens which are extremely dangerous to the human body."
In Nigeria, the situation looked pathetic.  A survey obtained from the 2006 census put the conservative number of Nigerians who smoke daily at 13 million. Also the Ministry of Health has warned that more young people are taking to smoking daily in Nigeria.
Also according to a survey by the National Expert Committee on Non-Communicable Disease in 2002 to determine smoking prevalent amongst secondary school students shows that 26.4 per cent of students interviewed have ever smoked cigarettes or used some form of tobacco products while 17.1per cent currently smokes. Another corroborative survey: The Global Youth Tobacco Survey conducted for Cross River State a year before reveals that 18.8 per cent of students have ever smoked cigarettes while 20.4 per cent said they would likely start smoking the following year.

Tobacco industry battles for survival
It is most unlikely that BAT bargained for the opposition it faced and so soon after it began operations in Nigeria and because the opposition did not come from competitors challenging its over 80 per cent dominance of the Nigerian markets, it made fighting back more difficult.
BAT has reiterated that it was interested in regulations that would help young people to stop smoking, the only snag being that it did not say that there are chemicals fused into the cigarettes to keep smokers addicted to it. The company also claimed to be assisting the regulatory bodies in regulating its activities. It has collaborated with the Nigerian Customs to curb smuggling by donating patrol vans; it voluntarily accepted a 30 per cent increase in warning signs on packs. But anti-tobacco groups are not impressed at all. According to Tosin Orogun, Communications Manager of ATCRI, what BAT wants is self regulation which is against the spirit and letter of Article 5.3 of the FCTC which warns against tobacco company interference in public health policy.  "You don't call the mosquito to the table when discussing a possible cure for malaria," he said.
BAT brought its case to the public arena during the public hearing on Mamora's bill on July 20-21, 2009. It argued that the bill would close down the industry if passed in its current form and open the floodgate to smugglers who may introduce contaminated   cigarettes thereby endangering the lives of Nigerians. But Mamora in an interview told News Star that the motivation for his bill is humanity. " The basic thing to say is humanity. When I say humanity, it is all encompassing. When you look in our Constitution under section 14 sub section 2, says "Security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government", that is under fundamental objectives and derivative principles of state policy, security and welfare; these are the fundamentals. And of course part of that welfare is safeguarding the health of the people and when you now take that further, particularly from my own background as a medical practitioner, it's no longer news, the hazards which tobacco cause to human health".
For now, the tobacco industry and the anti-tobacco advocates are locked in a battle for the souls of young people awaiting further actions from the Senate. 
But Phillip Jakpor, media officer to the ERA/FoEN said, "We call on the Senate and the leadership of the National Assembly to pass the National Tobacco Control Bill now. It has been a year after the public hearing organized by the Senate Committee on Health led by Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello; the civil society is asking that the committee should return the bill to the plenary for prompt passage in order to save the lives of our young people."
Jakpor and his organization have another reason to be happy. In October 2009, Osun State House of Assembly passed the Prohibition of Smoking in Public Places Bill 2009, making it illegal to smoke tobacco products in all public places in the state. The state imposed a fine of between N10,000 and N250,000 for violators. Only last week, Rivers State passed a similar bill banning smoking in all public places in the state.
Akinbode said he is optimistic the National Tobacco Control Bill will scale through but he can only hope.  His optimism might have been due to a lifeline given to him by Senate President David Mark while declaring open the public hearing ""We stand between health and economy that is the truth of the matter. People who are against it are worried about the impact on the health of Nigerians and people  who are for it are saying well, the nation stands to benefit from it. The simple question is, 'when do you begin to worry about economy? Is it when you are dead or when you are alive?"