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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Advocates demand FG probe BATN

Anti Tobacco advocates wants government to probe the British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) over alleged targeting of young people during the promotion of PALL MALL cigarette.

By Seun Akioye

There are many questions waiting to be answered by the largest tobacco company Nigeria, British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN). Is it true that the company is currently engaged in an all night dance party promotional campaign for one of its brands Pall Mall? Is it correct that the campaign is being organised all over the six geo- political zones of Nigeria? Is it also correct that underage people were invited to such parties and free cigarettes were given out? Is it also true that such underage people were mandated to light a cigarette before gaining entrance into the party venue?

For Akinbode Oluwafemi and the organisation he represents Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth (ERA/FOEN) which has been in the forefront of campaigns to regulate the activities of the tobacco giant in Nigeria, the answer to the above questions is in the affirmative. The group had asked the Federal Government in a press release to probe what it calls ‘secret smoking parties’ organised by BATN to promote its Pall Mall cigarette. It also alleged that the campaign was aimed at luring minors into smoking in a bid to make them lifelong smokers.
This will not be the first time the tobacco giants will come under fire from different sections of the society. Last year, four state governments instituted legal actions against the company and four others for luring young Nigerians into smoking thorough deceptive advertising and incomplete information regarding the true nature of its products. The Federal government has since joined the suits bringing the total claims to about N10 trillion. The company has also been linked to the use of child labour on its farms a claim which the industry has refused to deny.
But the latest allegations from ERA/FOEN appear to be very grave indeed. According to Oluwafemi, the company had staged dance parties in Sokoto, Kano, Ilorin, Ibadan and at Gateway Hotel Abeokuta. He said the company had breached its own rules of not marketing to young people. “It is outrageous that BAT is still conducting itself in such irresponsible manner just weeks after a BBC documentary revealed how the corporation has been marketing cigarettes to young people across Africa and how it has used parties and concerts to lure people into smoking” Oluwafemi said.
Over the years, BATN has repeatedly denied marketing cigarette to young people. The company launched its 18+ programme in 2004 which it claimed was aimed at discouraging persons under the age of 18 from smoking. BAT’s regulations also clearly disallows targeting or marketing of cigarettes to minors. A statement of purpose on youth smoking from the company says “We believe that the choice to smoke should only be for informed adults”. Information gathered from the company’s website says in 2007, the company reported “running or supporting 75 youth smoking prevention programmes, more than 60 per cent of them focused on preventing under age access at the point of sale”.
Babatunde Irukera one of the lead lawyers in the litigation disagreed with the position of BAT on informed choice. “How many smokers do you know who pick up the habit as adults. They do only when they are young and cannot make choices. And what is worse is that to remain lifelong smokers the tobacco companies have engineered the ingredients of the product to include nicotine which is an addiction agent. So you pick up the habit when you are young and before you know it you are addicted. That is where the two Ps’ come in. Physiology and Psychology. The psychology is when you are young and you think smoking is cool based on their advertising projections. So they make young impressionable people smokers by PSYCHOLOGY but you keep them in the habit based on Physiology which is the delivery of nicotine that keeps them dependent on it.”
Oluwafemi insisted that the company was never sincere in its fight against youth smoking. “What we have is a company that lies and cannot be trusted. BAT initiated the 18+ campaign and goes on air to say it does not market to young people but it is now organizing dancing competition for the same youths to win free packs of cigarettes it just does not add up.”
He described the latest marketing promotion as appalling “BAT secretly gave out invitations to young people in secondary and tertiary institutions for a secret smoking party. Our investigation reveals that you are mandated to light a stick of cigarette which will be given to you at the entrance. The invitation they gave out did not indicate it is a smoker’s only party and in fact it was termed EXPERIENCE FRESHNESS.”
Nigerian Compass learnt that the concert was attended by minors especially females who were given free entry into the all night event which featured music from prominent Nigerian artists. It was also gathered that cigarettes were freely given out during the rave and free drinks were supplied to the first few guests. Checks also revealed that there were no checks on age limit at the point of entry.
More worrisome however is the fact that BATN did not stop the promotion after it was first reported and last Wednesday the company held another dance party at Option club on Toyin street in Ikeja Lagos, a situation described by the anti tobacco advocates as provocative. Toyosi Onaolapo who is the coordinator of Coalition Against Tobacco (CAT), told Nigerian Compass “If we expect to reason with the tobacco industry we are merely wasting our time, that is why litigation is the only way to force regulations on these companies. It is now quite clear that BAT is unrepentant about marketing to young people in Nigeria and the presence of the company in Nigeria is doing more harm than good.”
Oluwafemi said “BATN has declared a no going back policy on addicting our youths. The company cannot do this in Europe or America but it can break all moral ethics in Nigeria. We demand an end to this sham and asked the Federal Government to investigate this company.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) equally frowns against marketing or targeting of young people by tobacco industry anywhere in the world. Article 13 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which is a global document for regulating tobacco use ban advertising, promotion and sponsorship of any kind of tobacco products. There are however more grim statistics from the global health body. If the tobacco industry continues to market to young people and addict more smokers, “a lifetime of tobacco use would result in the deaths of 250 million children and young people alive today, most of them from developing countries.”
BATN has been elusive since the story broke. Efforts by the Nigerian Compass to get the company to speak on the issue have proved abortive. BATN communications manager Aliyu Maa’ji did not respond either to email inquiries or reply voice messages. But sources close to the company insisted that the company has not in any way breached its own rules and is committed to preventing young people from smoking.