Search This Blog

Monday, May 28, 2012

‘How tobacco firms are hurting our health system’

Ahead of this year’s World No Tobacco Day which is marked every May 31, Akinbode Oluwafemi, director of Administration and Corporate Accountability at the Environmental Rights Action/ Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), sheds lights on the strong lobby of tobacco companies and the need to have the National Tobacco Control Bill signed into law in this encounter with Joe Agbro Jr.
A meeting with Mr. Akinbode Oluwafemi of the Environmental Rights Action/ Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) is filled with excitement. He talks with so much conviction and knowledge about the dangers of smoking that you are held captive and cannot help but listen and reason along with him.
Asked why he is so concerned about the battle against tobacco in the country, he says it is because tobacco kills about half of its consumers. But regrettably, policies in the country do not address this development. According to him, “when you look at smoking in Nigeria, you’ll think smoking is not a big problem. But, I’ must tell you that it’s a very big problem. And this problem has a link with how the tobacco industry is being regulated in the west. You know, most western governments have put in very stringent measures to regulate the practice of tobacco industry and to ensure that smoking rate is decreasing. And because of those measures and litigation, tobacco companies started looking elsewhere. The developing countries, of which Nigeria belongs, becomes a very prime target.”
Growing epidemic 
He is afraid that this smoking epidemic is very real here. According to a survey conducted in Adamawa, as much as 29percent of the youths in that are smokers, while a survey in 11 Lagos hospitals showed that “at least one person dies a day in each of those hospitals as a result of smoking.”
In the absence of a national statistics on smoking, a 2011 survey by the World Health Organisation (WHO)  shows that there is actually rising smoking among Nigerian girls rising up to the level of 3% a year. “That is alarming and extremely disturbing,” Oluwafemi says.
In the overall picture of insufficient healthcare infrastructure, diseases such as “heart disease, cancers of different types, impotence, heart condition, low birth rate, and loss of man hours at work places” are of serious challenge to the health care sector. 
According to WHO, tobacco currently kills over 5.4 million people yearly, with about 70percent of casualty occurring in developing countries like Nigeria, adding that every stick of cigarette contains over 4, 000 dangerous chemicals with over 40 of them being carcinogenic. 
To combat this disturbing outcome, Senator Olorunnibe Mamora sponsored the National Tobacco Bill which was eventually passed by the National Assembly on May 31st, 2011, a year ago. This Bill, Oluwafemi says, was “happily supported by Environmental Rights Action (ERA), it seeks to domesticate the Framework Convention of Tobacco Control, a global treaty, about the minimum standards that countries must adhere to in terms of legislating about tobacco.
“Nigeria is a signatory as well as a party. And since we are a party to that treaty, we are under obligation to implement the provision of that international treaty. The Bill seeks to end advertisement, sponsorship, and promotion, it prohibits the sale of cigarettes to minors, it recommended pictorial warnings on cigarette packs, and it bans smoking in public places. More importantly, that Bill seeks to create a committee, National Tobacco Control Committee which will serve as an advisory role in terms of reviewing the policy. That essentially is what that Bill is all about. I have heard people say that the Bill wants to close tobacco companies in Nigeria. I don’t know whether they have a separate Bill. This Bill has been passed and we are waiting for the presidential assent so that the Bill can become enforceable in Nigeria. We are worried that the presidential assent is taking too long. And we are very suspicious that some people somewhere may want to compromise public health and we’re calling on the president to see this Bill as an obligation to protect the health of the Nigerian people.”
He faulted the idea of mixing sponsorship with corporate social responsibility (CSR), Oluwafemi said, “Tobacco companies are inflicting monumental health impact on our nation. How do you mitigate that by buying computers or drilling boreholes? Can computers and boreholes make up for the lives of our brothers and sisters dying as a result of smoking? No. So, what we are saying is that let government impose appropriate taxes on those products.  Why is it that a pack of cigarettes is about six pounds (N1, 500) in London, seven dollars (N1, 300) in the US, and the same pack is selling for N200 in Nigeria? Other governments have moved ahead to impose appropriate taxes on tobacco products. Then, you can use those taxes to build the schools and to buy the computers. And this time around, even the way they have conducted themselves with the CSR, it is only another form of advertisement. They only practically move their advert budget into CSR so that they can always call government people to sit on the table and they can win public sympathy.”
He blames the non-passage of the National Tobacco Control Bill on the interference of the tobacco companies. “In fact, we have it on authority that they have started calling reporters not to run stories on World No Tobacco Day and stories around the Bill. They know that if this Bill is signed they would not be able to do those things that bring in more consumers the way they’ve always been doing. So, when this  is dragging for too long, our suspicion would certainly be that the tobacco industry has been moving underground as they’ve always been doing, not only  in Nigeria, but all around the world to undermine public health and to ensure that legislation that are for public health are never enacted.”  He punched holes in the industry’s argument that it has a large work force in the country, saying, “the tobacco companies are not employing up to 1, 000 people. That is the reality,” he said. 
He believes that the true nature of the industry is hidden from most Nigerians because “their business thrives on deception. They make people to think that when you smoke, it’s good. And they will never tell you the health implications. So, those deceptions were the basis of their objections which were completely irrelevant because whatever section that you have in this Bill are provisions that are just the basic in NTC Bill. Take for instance, in our Bill, we are seeking 50percent pictures on cigarette packs. A country as close as Mauritius is already enforcing 70percent. Ghana is already thinking of about 60 percent. In fact, some countries like Australia has even gone beyond the pictures and talk about plain packaging. They know it that they cannot debate this because the international community have moved way beyond what is even in this Bill as at today.”
He appealed to the president to sign the bill and save Nigerian youths from the looming tobacco epidemic.