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Friday, September 17, 2010

More Questions over National Tobacco Control Bill

It was tagged "Bursting with Flavour". And it held on the soils of Ajegunle, the crowded enclave in Lagos, which its inhabitants love to describe as a jungle.
Get PDF here
The event is the latest promotional campaign by the British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN). It has made the tobacco control community in Nigeria call for the passage of the National Tobacco Control Bill sponsored by Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora.
Leading environmental group in Nigeria, the Environmental Rights action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) said the continued promotion and advertising of tobacco products to youths by the BATN runs against international protocols and standards governing the manufacture and sale of tobacco products worldwide.
The group said the tobacco giant on August 7, at the Ajeromi Ifelodun Area of Lagos, attracted a large number of young people and local music artists resident in Ajegunle and gave out free samples of Pall Mall cigarettes while branded items like T-shirts were handed out. 
According to the Director Corporate Accountability, Campaign & Administration of ERA/FoEN, Akinbode Oluwafemi, the latest offering from the giant tobacco company has again raised the need for a comprehensive regulation of standards and practice of tobacco business in Nigeria.
"The position of ERA/FoEN has always been that we cannot operate the tobacco business in Nigeria outside of the international laws and standards which has abolished all forms of promotion and marketing of tobacco products."
One of such standard regulations is the proposed National Tobacco Control Bill currently before the National Assembly. It has been over a year now that the Sen Mamora’s comprehensive tobacco bill has undergone a public hearing conducted by the Senate Committee on Health led by Senator Iyabo Obasanjo Bello.
But curiously, nothing has been heard about the bill since then. The recommendations made at the public hearing which should have formed the basis of the committee report on the final draft of the bill have not been released.
Nigeria’s tobacco control community has attributed the delay to underhand practices by the tobacco industry to undermine the intent of the bill. This position, according to them, was given credence when in April this year, Sen. Kamarudeen Adedibu representing the Oyo South constituency declared at a function organised by the BATN that the tobacco bill was dead.
However, Mamora debunked any allegations that the Senate might have been compromised. "You must understand why the legislative process could be slow. One you might have other bills that compete with it in the order of priority. Again the tobacco bill is quite comprehensive and voluminous unlike other bills and if you want to do a thorough job, you will need some time. We want to be fair to all concerned."
But the delay has had its consequences. The international community, which has placed so much hope on Nigeria leading Africa in implementing a comprehensive law, has had to look for another role model in Africa in the mould of Kenya and Mauritius, which have passed a similar law and vigorously pursuing its implementation.
"Nigeria led other African countries to negotiate the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in Geneva. I can confirm that to you. After signing and ratifying the treaty, we are supposed to domesticate it by a national law which is what the tobacco bill intends to do. But by our failure to pass the bill and serve as a model to other African countries we risk a tobacco epidemic  that may consume the next generation if current statistics is taken into consideration," Oluwafemi said.
He also blamed the continued promotion of tobacco products by BATN on the non-passage of the bill "If the bill is not passed immediately, we will continue to see such instances where the tobacco industry will continue to illegally recruit our youths through its secret smoking parties.  This has been going on since 2008 and they have organised the same criminal show all over the country.
"One needs to ask why choose Ajegunle? Why choose Terry G? It is because they can get poor impressionable youths in Ajegunle and because the sorts of kids who love Terry G also reside in Ajegunle. So, it is a well thought out and well implemented campaign strategy against the youth and the future of this country. The tobacco bill can put a stop to this."
Will the legislature find the courage to pass this much awaited bill before the end of this legislative session?  If the bill is passed against all expectations and odds, the Senate would have given Nigerians one of the best gifts of this democracy, but if it does not, then one may expect very little from future public health policy promises.
The bill, as proposed by Mamora, will help reduce the burden of the tobacco epidemic that is expected to arise from uncoordinated and unrestricted business environment which tobacco giants currently operate in.
The bill prohibits the sale of single stick cigarettes; calls for a periodic increase in taxation in order to discourage access to the deadly product; it provides for a ban on smoking in all designated public places and provides for a framework to seek legal redress for anyone who got sick from smoking.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), tobacco currently kills 5.4 million people annually. A 2006 survey from Lagos State Ministry of Health also reveals that at least two persons die every day from a tobacco-related disease in the state. This was the basis for a legal suit instituted by the state against major tobacco companies in Nigeria.
Currently more than 10 states have signed up to similar suits against tobacco companies and the Federal Government in November 2007 instituted a similar suit at the Abuja Federal High Court.