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Thursday, April 9, 2009

The People v. Big Tobacco

-By Adeola Akinremi

How many people are we willing to sacrifice as a nation to continue to keep the tobacco industry in business? Since the Senate pushed the National Tobacco Bill 2009 through Second Reading in February and mandating Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-led Senate Health Committee to finalise work on the Bill and re-present to the National Assembly for enactment into law, the tobacco industry has become more aggressive in its usual tactics of distorting the truth both in the public places and at the chambers of the National Assembly.

The issue is what does regulation of tobacco product seeks to address in Nigeria. The bill at the Senate would mandate a total reformation and restructuring of how tobacco products are manufactured, marketed and distributed in this country. The nation can thereby see real and swift progress in preventing underage use of tobacco, addressing the adverse health effects of tobacco use and changing the corporate culture of the tobacco industry.

The National Agency for Food and Drug Administrative and Control (NAFDAC) and other public health protection agencies have spoken out about the hazards of tobacco and they view the use of tobacco products by our nation’s children as paediatric disease. There is also a consensus within the scientific and medical communities that tobacco products are inherently dangerous. They cause cancer, heart disease and other serious adverse effects.

Until now, the federal and state governments have lacked many of the legal means and resources they need to address the societal problems caused by the use of tobacco products. It is against this backdrop that Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora and the entire Senate should be commended for initiating the bill and moving it through second reading unanimously. The National Tobacco bill will indeed provide a platform for the government to achieve the public health objectives with which they were charged while taking the oath of office.

Beyond the cynicism of the tobacco companies and their hirelings in the Senate and the media who are subverting the truth; the sale of tobacco products to adults would remain legal, but subject to restrictive measures to ensure that they are not sold to underage persons. These measures echoes the mind of federal and state public health officials, the public health community and the public at large that the tobacco industry should be subject to serious regulatory oversight given the industry open admittance that its products kills.

Enacting a comprehensive legislation at this time to implement the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which Nigeria ratifies in 2005 would ensure a healthy population where burden of treating tobacco-related diseases no longer put pressure on the annual health budget of Nigeria.

Importantly, the speed of enactment of this legislation will show that the government cares more for the future health of the country’s children than for the economic wealth of the tobacco industry.

In Mauritius, an African country with a small population will in June begin implementation of pictorial warnings on cigarette packs that covers 65 per cent of the packets. Pictorial warning is contained in article 11 of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
World Health Organisation particularly approves of tobacco health warnings that contain both pictures and words because they are the most effective at convincing people to quit.

According to the WHO, “Incorporation of Pictorial Warning on tobacco product packets is important as majority of the tobacco users in this country will be able to have informed choice.”
The Senate will therefore be doing this nation a lot of good by passing this bill on time because the burden of cancer in Nigeria is appreciable and tobacco contributes a lot to this. The WHO states that there are an estimated 100,000 new cancer cases in the country each year although observers believe the figure could become as high as 500,000 new cases annually by 2010.

In 2005 cancer killed 89,000 people in Nigeria with 54,000 of this figure below the age of 70. Essentially, with the passage of this bill, which will properly regulate tobacco use, cancer and other tobacco-related diseases are bound to be on the recoil.

***Adeola Akinremi is the African Regional Coordinator, Framework Convention Alliance[FAC] an Inter governmental policy organisation based in Geneva, Switzerland.