Search This Blog

Friday, August 21, 2009

Much ado about tobacco

-Mobolaji Sanusi

What is the big deal about a Tobacco bill? This is the multi-million Naira question that followers of controversies trailing the above bill before the Senate Committee on Health may be seeking answers for. The bill is aimed at repealing the Tobacco (Control) Act 1990 and to enact the National Tobacco Control bill 2008. Its stated goals like the 1990 one are laudable – to provide for the regulation or control of production, manufacture sale, advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco or tobacco products and other related matters.
The bill is sponsored by Senator Adeleke Mamora, a medical doctor, ostensibly in tandem with some groups of lawyers in the country. Ordinarily, this kind of bill should be seen as a good thing considering the fact that since the tenure of military president Ibrahim Babangida, the late Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti who was then Minister of Health, championed the battle for regulation of tobacco smoking. It was then that the issue of public smoking and compulsory inscription of ‘tobacco smoking is dangerous to your health’ on packet of cigarettes, on billboards and other forms of advertisement were enforced.
Thus, the current bill is not out to achieve any significant goal different from what Professor Olikoye Ransome-Kuti achieved during the military era. But the bill that is still at the public hearing, stage in the Senate is generating so much controversy and this has attracted intense public attention. Many are wondering why there is no much ado about this new Bill for an Act to repeal the Tobacco (Control) Act 1990.
For this reason, I have taken time to look for the bill, got a copy and have since realized that the bill is as needless as the artificial controversy surrounding it. Certain provisions of the bill (sections 40-45) question the professed altruistic motive of most promoters of the bills: it is important to ask whether most promoters of bills put national interest over personal gains in their pursuits of legislative enactments. Whatever their motives, it is also germane to point out that that is why there are levels of checks in legislative drafting – first, second, and third readings and even the stage of public hearings in legislative enactment processes. But does the National Assembly legislators adhere to this in the overall interest of the nation or just see it as something just there for being there sake? Could it be that the effort by the Senate Health Committee to play by the rules and not allow arm twisting actually led to the on-going controversy on the matter?
What I do know is that there is something sinister about the purport of the bill which might not completely be in the overall interest of the nation. The issue of Child Rights that came out of the bills public hearing that has generated heated debates between Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello and Mrs. Maryam Uwais might be a decoy aimed at blackmailing somebody so that the bill can enjoy easy passage.
Let us get it right ab initio that cigarette smoking is without equivocation dangerous to the health of both young and old persons. This is acknowledged by the Tobacco companies that agreed with the legislation that compels them to inscribe the warning that cigarette smoking is dangerous to health. Professor Ransome-Kuti himself was a chain smoker of cigarette and this warning would not even deter him and many others in his shoes from smoking. There are several people in high places, including state governors whose governments are suing Tobacco companies who are today chain smokers too. What moral right do these sets of people have to sue the cigarette producing companies? Among the downtrodden in this country, millions engage in legal cigarette smoking. It is at least better than smoking of marijuana and other illicit drugs. The present cases before the court are stalled because of unfavourable rules of evidence which the bill is avariciously planned to cure when passed in to law.
Some of these curious provisions in the bill attempt to empower the government to sue and make claims from tobacco companies for cost incurred from treating tobacco related ailment victims. For example, this provision presupposes that there are free medical services in the country. This is a fallacious assumption as the social safety nets in the country are almost zero. So, the proposed recourse to legal actions by states through the services of certain group of lawyers is laughable. This is not within the jurisprudential sociological theory of law espoused by Rosco Pound. These state governments and their ambitious lawyers behind the bill should also study more of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Realistic School of legal Jurisprudence. Any piece of law worth its salt should be made for the society and not vice-versa. Any law or provisions of it that is out to force itself on the society would only benefit few individuals for a short while before subsequently roiling into oblivion.
The all important legal principle; volunti non fit injuria (voluntary assumption of risk) in the Law of Tort applies in the case of smokers of cigarette. If after the warning and other precautions, people still go ahead and smoke, nobody or entity should be blamed but the smokers themselves.
Morally, some of the state governors who engage in smoking with some of their cabinet members should not have approved the suits being pursued on their behalf by some lawyers in the first instance. Within the Presidency today, there are smokers who are not ready to quit the habit. Would the state be right to claim compensation on behalf of leaders and others no matter their ages who voluntarily take to smoking as habit? I hope this bill is not out to benefit few lawyers who are its covertly promoters?
Most parents smoke cigarettes and even send their wards to buy same for them. These children copy the habit from them. Should anyone or an entity be blamed for this? This is why the issue of prohibiting communications of any form by entities producing cigarettes becomes deluding or the selling of cigarettes within particular radius from certain public places hypocritical. One, it is through advertisement on the danger of smoking that smokers can be more aware of the risk they voluntarily put upon themselves.
Not allowing sale within a certain radius or outright prohibition would make illegal tobacco sale business thrive thereby making monitoring difficult. Tobacco smoking would be a difficult thing to eradicate in any country. In Christianity as well as Islam, it is one thing that is not prohibited but strands condemned because of its hazardous health implications. There should be moderation in the mode of its legislation. What the country should bother about is the creation of standard and effective monitoring through agencies like the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and the Consumer Protection Council (CPC). One of the tobacco companies, British-America tobacco, reportedly had paid tax in excess of over N80 billion since 2001 and gives employment to hundreds of Nigerians from its 150 million dollar factory. This is aside its corporate social responsibilities that gulped hundreds of millions of Naira too.
The question is: Can Nigeria afford to trade off the sector at this point through this draconian bill that might send companies operating therein out of business via needless, avoidable law suits- at a time most big companies are relocating to neighbouring countries? The answer is in the negative