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Friday, August 7, 2009

The continued fight to control smoking (2)

-Emmanuel Ogala

There is no up-to-date data showing how many Nigerians are smokers or how many die of tobacco related illnesses, but the floor of the senate has been gripped with excitement since it started hearing on a bill to control the sale of tobacco last week.
Research conducted in 1988 by the Federal Ministry of Health showed that nine million Nigerians were smokers, out of which 3.5 million smoked an average of 20 sticks daily. This led to the promulgation of a decree banning smoking in public spaces. In 2006, research carried out in Lagos revealed that two people die daily from tobacco related illnesses in the state.
The tobacco industry is a bug-bear for many health activists and government institutions, locally and internationally, so it was no surprise that a National Tobacco Control Bill which seeks to control the production, sale and use of tobacco in Nigeria was debated by the public in the senate chamber early last week. The bill is sponsored by Adeleke Olorunimbe Mamora (AC, Lagos state).
The National Tobacco Control Bill 2009 is an upgrade of the Tobacco Control Act of 1990 and a replica of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Nigeria ratified the FCTC treaty in October 2005.
The bill was welcomed by health organisations and environmentalists but, as expected, there was solid opposition from tobacco companies, their suppliers, traders, community associations of tobacco producing communities and others connected economically to tobacco production.
The bill is a double-edged sword: while it promises to save the lives of about 6.5 million Nigerian smokers whom activists from the Environmental Rights Action (ERA) say are on the ‘death row’ due to tobacco addiction, it will also lead to the loss of about 500,000 jobs across the nation, according to pro-tobacco lobbyists.
“We stand between health and economy,” David Mark, the senate president, said while declaring the public hearing open. He, however, noted that although the tobacco industry is economically significant, it is only the living that can enjoy the wealth.
The case for production Oloye Gbade Isola, national secretary of the Central Council of Ibadan Indigenes, said British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) is a major business concern in Ibadan. He said the company might find it difficult to operate under a regulatory legislation that is choking.
“The company will eventually wind up,” he said. “To those who have benefited from BATN’s presence, its exit will be a calamity.” Saka Muniru, representing the Ibadan Progressive Union, also told the Senate that the closure of the BATN factory located in Ibadan would lead to the loss of more than 500,000 jobs. In his view, the bill will drive away investors. He therefore pleaded that the new bill should only include measures to regulate the production of cigarettes in the country rather than strangle existing companies.
Tony Okwoju,Area Head Regional Affairs at BATN, the largest cigarette producing companyin Nigeria, promised that his company will comply with the provisions of the bill whenever it is signed into law.
However, he said there are components of the proposed bill that are extreme and would have ‘unintended consequences’ on the industry or even make it impossible for legal companies to operate yet will not achieve the desired goal of reducing the impact of tobacco on public health.
“We have seen cases where extreme regulation has resulted in an increase in the levels of illicit trade,” Mr. Okwoju said. “We believe that the purpose of a tobacco control law should be the reduction of the impact of tobacco on public health. It should not be to force legal tax-paying tobacco companies out of business.”
The case against Environmental and health activists argue that the hazards of smoking far outweigh the benefits, as few Nigerians are directly or indirectly on the payroll of tobacco companies.
. They insist that tobacco farmers in Nigeria could easily shift to other crops, such as cassava, which has high demand in the international market.
“Besides, Nigeria still imports tobacco leaves at a mere 5% duty, which makes locally produced tobacco unattractive,” Uche Onyeagocha of Friends of the Earth, Nigeria (FoEN) said.
The bill, amongst other provisions, seeks to regulate the involvement of tobacco companies in corporate social responsibility (CSR), a tool many tobacco companies use as part of the arguments to justify their presence in any community.
“It is simply a decoy to replace the dead smokers and keep the government’s eye away from regulating its expansion,” Adeola Akinremi, African coordinator of Framework Convention Alliance (FCA), an intergovernmental policy
organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, said. “What social responsibility can a company whose product kills offer?” The bill also seeks to establish a National Tobacco Committee (NATOC) to monitor the implementation of the restrictions in the bill. The Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) presently has the responsibility of regulating tobacco sale and distribution.
The devil is in the bill When the bill is eventually passed, tobacco companies will be required to go beyond the written warning on cigarette packs, to using pictures of people harmed by smoking, and this which will occupy at least one-third of the cover to warn consumers.
It will also be against the law to sell tobacco products within one kilometre of churches, mosques, schools and hospitals when the bill is passed.
This provision particularly angered a group called Concerned Tobacco Retailers. “This means we cannot sell at all in this country!” Luka Vindi, secretary to the organization, said.
Other provisions in the bill include: prohibition of smoking in public places, ban on the sale of tobacco products to persons under the age of 18, and prohibition of the sale of tobacco in single sticks. When passed, cigarettes will be sold only in a pack of 20.
Also, the bill prohibits mail delivery of cigarettes to consumers, and provides that all tobacco meant to be consumed in Nigeria must bear a mark indicating that it is for the Nigerian market only; while those meant for export should be clearly marked too. This, they say, will help curb smuggling of tobacco products.
Although it will be a tough decision for the senators to choose between the economy and the health implications of tobacco, the senate president has promised to make every senator declare his/her stance publicly when the bill is up for passage.
Legislative drama Part of the drama at the emotive public hearing was the altercation between the chairman of the senate committee on health, Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, and Maryam Uwais, wife of the former chief justice of Nigeria, Muhammed Uwais.
Mrs Uwais was angry that Mrs Obasanjo-Bello refused to allow some children present on the floor to speak. She later sent a letter to the senate to complain aboutthis.
In an interview with NEXT, Mrs Uwais said:“What happened was that there was a hearing on the tobacco and I have been involved in a related litigation. We’ve been suing tobacco companies and trying to get them to stop selling to children, and around sport centres and schools.
“We have also been supporting Senator Mamora who had produced a bill for tobacco control which is more effective than the other law that has been in existence.
We went for the public hearing and I was able to speak on the first day. I spoke about my role as a child rights advocate and how tobacco affects children.
“I was allowed to speak. But the following day, other members of ourteam were going to speak, so I went. I noticed in the audience, the three children. I don’t know them and I have never seen them before.
They attempted to speak but the chairperson said no. I stood up and she said ‘sit down, I am not going to allow you to address me on this issue, as a mother I am to protect these children. They are being brought here to be paraded.’ Meanwhile a lot of people had come to testify that children are stakeholders. All I wanted to do was make her realise that she was wrong.”