Search This Blog

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

TOBACCO CONTROL BILL : Making a choice between economy and citizens health


As the Tobacco control bill provokes debate between two major parties of stakeholders, it is apparent that the choice is between guaranteeing banal economic returns and closing the eyes to the negative toll of tobacco consumption on public health.
In its attempt to rationalize the legislation of a Tobacco Control Act which seeks among other things to prohibit tobacco products advertising and promotion or the sponsorship of any project or programme bordering on entertainment or tourism by tobacco manufacturers, the Senate has in a recent public hearing granted audience to stakeholders. It would be recalled that the bill for tobacco control sponsored by Senator Olorunimbe Mamora had since February this year been a subject of legislative debate in the upper house. A debate that has created a divide between those who see in tobacco manufacturing a blessing as jobs are created and those who see nothing but disease and death which flows from tobacco manufacturing and sale in the country.
Coming at the heels of the imposition of strict legislative control against tobacco manufacturing in Europe and the United States of America, the on going attempt to ban the sale of tobacco products to persons below 18 and the prohibition of advertisement in promotions by tobacco companies in Nigeria through the Tobacco Control Act creates a gloomy future for an industry. It is on record that the British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) a major tobacco products manufacturer in the country pays up to 80 billion Naira as tax to government coffers. In addition, BATN has executed and still executes many corporate social responsibility projects across the country. It is estimated that the closure of BATN activities in the country would lead to the loss of more than 500,000 jobs, thus affecting the well being of millions of dependants.
However, the coalition of forces that insist on the stringent control of tobacco manufacturing, sale and promotion in the country have reeled out statistics proving that tobacco brings nothing but disease and death and avoidable health expenditure. A recent survey conducted in hospitals in Lagos state revealed that up to 2 person die every day as a result of tobacco related diseases. This gives an idea of the colossal human cost of tobacco in a country where accurate statistics are not available. The stunning 400,000 deaths recorded in the United States of America as result of tobacco products consumption gives an impression of the negative impact of tobacco consumption on human health.
In kick starting the debate on the Tobacco Control bill Senator Mamora commented on the fact that the increasing hostility of the economic environment in Europe and America has driven tobacco manufacturers like BATN to the developing countries where they exploit the ignorance of the people and the laxity of government to continue the production and sale of products that are harmful to peoples health.
The plan to establish a BATN factory in the country was made known on September 24 2001 with the intention then to expend up to $150 million dollars in constructing a modern cigarette factory in Ibadan . Then, two years into the first tenure of President Olusegun Obasanjo and at a time when the country was direly in need of foreign investment, BATN was perceived more as a partner in economic progress. However the entry of BATN in the country at the time met with pockets of opposition. Such opposition mounted by civil society was overwhelmed by an overwhelming wave of euphoria that gripped government bureaucrats over foreign investment. It would be recalled that the then Minister of Industry, Kola Jamodu noted that the coming of BATN is a "considerable investment" which "demonstrates that the new Nigeria is on track… We are on course to meet the ambitious investment targets…
Today, 8 years after its decision to fully enter the Nigeria market as a manufacturer of tobacco products, BATN is under pressure both from concerned civil society organizations and legislators to organize its activities in the country in a way that would no endanger the health of ignorant people.
Commenting during the public hearing in the Senate, BATN Regional Affairs manager, Tony Okwoju captured the major fear of the tobacco manufacturing sector by noting that the purpose of tobacco control should be restricted to reducing the effect of tobacco consumption on public health not to force tobacco companies out of business.
Considering the estimate that up to 6.5 million Nigerians are already prone to tobacco related deaths, the Senate according to the Senate President is faced with a legislative challenge bordering on allowing a liberal regime for tobacco consumption and thus put more lives on the death row or enact the Tobacco Control Act into a law and stand the risk of endangering the fortunes of tobacco manufacturing in the country with attendant revenue loss to government- in this era of serious drive for revenues and the loss of jobs thus swelling the unemployment rate in the country.
Will there be a compromise- a middle ground that would create a win-win scenario or would the boom days of cigarette manufacturing, promotions, sponsorships and consumption be over ? But the fears remain that the stifling of tobacco manufacturing in the country may create a boom for the smuggling of tobacco products into the country through the nation's porous borders through the illicit connivance of unscrupulous customs officials.