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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The tobacco control bill

As the elections inch closer, the Senate last week passed a bill that will eventually give Nigeria one of the strongest anti-tobacco laws on the continent. Sponsored by Olorunimbe Mamora, a senator (Lagos East) on the platform of the Action Congress of Nigeria, the bill is called the Nigerian Tobacco Control Bill.

It’s essential components include: raising a National Tobacco Control Committee to shape the future of tobacco control policies and guide implementation; A comprehensive ban on smoking in public places, and the sale of cigarettes by or to minors; and detailed specifications on points of sale notice. That is not all, however. The bill has finally given legal backing to a directive by the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria (APCON) which a few years ago banned all sorts of advertisement, sponsorship, promotion, testimonials and brand stretching of tobacco products across the country.

The bill is also to ensure that health messages cover 50 per cent of the areas where tobacco products are to be displayed, while the minister of health is empowered to prescribe pictures or pictogram and ensure that the law is effectively implemented. As it is now, the bill has only been passed by the Senate. It is to be sent to the House of Representatives which will hopefully pass it before it goes to Goodluck Jonathan for his assent. We at NEXT do not expect the House to have any fundamental disagreement with the version that has been passed by the Senate.

The upper house had, in the two years the bill was with it, ensured that all the stakeholders – civil society groups, tobacco manufacturers, health experts and the general public – had their say at the public hearings that preceded the debates and the passing of the bill. Mainly, the Nigeria Tobacco Control bill domesticates the World Health Organisation (WHO) initiated Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The treaty is the first global health treaty which is mandatory on all WHO members. Nigeria has signed and ratified the treaty.

We commend this step by the Senate and plead with the House not to water down this laudable bill. Passing it into law could help this set of lawmakers become one of the most proactive to have passed through the hallowed chambers. It is a great contribution to public health. We make this appeal because we know that tobacco products have for several years wreaked havoc on our people. This is our opportunity to curb this terrible scourge.

A few years ago, some states like Lagos, Gombe, Kano and Oyo sued some tobacco companies, asking them to pay billions of naira for the damages their products had caused their citizens. For instance, Lagos sued for ₦2.7 trillion claiming that research carried out by its staff in hospitals across the state show that at least two people die daily owing to tobacco-related diseases; and that the state had recorded about 20 per cent increase in the smoking rate over the past two decades with reported cases of 9,527 tobacco-related diseases in government-run hospitals monthly, in one of Nigeria’s most populous states.

This is a high figure and a high price to pay for a disease with a cause that is known and preventable. And that is only for a state that has cared to carry out research on what it costs it to treat tobacco-related diseases.

We salute the doggedness of Mr. Mamora, the civil group Environmental Rights Action (ERA), the United States based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK), the media and other groups that fought for the enactment of this bill. However, the fight will not simply be over because the House and the President assented to it. Implementation of the clauses of the bill must be monitored and adhered to. Only then would it help our public health and protect us from the fatal tobacco-related diseases.