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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tobacco bill, big test of Jonathan’s promise – Oluwafemi

Akinbode Oluwafemi
Akinbode Oluwafemi, Director, Corporate Accountability and Campaigns of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) speaks on the National Tobacco Control Bill that is awaiting presidential assent in this interview with SINA FADARE. Excerpts:

The National Tobacco Control Bill was one of the high profile bills passed by the 6th National Assembly. What is the status of the bill now?
The bill was passed by the National Assembly, inciden-tally on World No Tobacco Day (WNTD) last year. What the people out there may not know is that passing a bill is not the end of legislative process. In fact, it is the beginning of another phase. There are legislative processes that a bill has to go through to prepare it for presidential assent. There is no time limit to the completion of this process, so it really depends on how fast the various arms of the Na-tional Assembly can work together to bring the legislative process to a completion.
But as a civil society organisation that has supported and advocated for this bill from the very beginning, ERA/FoEN has continued to offer support throughout this legis-lative process. We are now at the stage where the bill would be forwarded to the president for his signature in order to become law. This is the most delicate junction where we are afraid that the tobacco industry, having failed so far to stop this bill, may want to exact undue influence to stop it from becoming law.
You spoke about the tobacco industry’s influence over tobacco control processes. How realistic is this espe-cially in Nigeria?
The tobacco industry is known to have one of the biggest lobbying machines in the world and this is possible be-cause they have enormous financial resources with which to pay the best lawyers and lobbyists. In developing countries, the industry capitalises on poverty to bring in the trade of death in the name of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). That was the situation we found ourselves in 2001.
Is there a possibility that the signing of the bill would be tenable?
There are no legal hindrances to the signing of the bill. Let me tell you that the House of Representatives con-curred with the Senate version on the last day of legisla-tive duties in the last Assembly. There is no constitutional time frame for this process to happen. So, there is nothing to fear in this. This bill has followed to the letter, the consti-tutional lay down procedures for the enactment of a law. The only thing remaining now is for President Goodluck Jonathan to sign it and the process will be completed.
What if the President refuses to sign this bill?
No, the President cannot refuse to sign it bill. I remem-ber he said during his swearing-in that he will never let Ni-gerians down. This is a big test of the President’s promise. But he can refuse to sign a bill constitutionally. You know the executive is independent of the legislative process of law enactment and if there is a grey area, he may refuse to sign. But the tobacco bill is a public health bill. It is a bill that the President would sign. It is a bill that fulfils some of the electoral promises of Mr. President himself. Nigeria has an obligation to domesticate the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which in part is what the bill seeks to do. So, in order that we continue to fulfil our international obligations and continue our leadership role in continental and global tobacco control, Nigeria must demonstrate effectiveness and commitment at pushing through a comprehensive tobacco control policy despite the antics of the tobacco industry.
What should be done now to ensure a prompt signing of the bill?
The key is the Minister of Health. He must rise up to the occasion and take leadership of this process because the success or otherwise of public health in Nigeria is his responsibility. The minister is aware of the rising deaths associated with tobacco use; he knows that more young people under his watch are taking to smoking. He knows that while he is the Health Minister, several people are dy-ing daily from preventable tobacco deaths and he knows that the implementation of the tobacco bill will reverse this trend. There is an enormous responsibility on him. He is entrusted with the lives of Nigerians and he is aware of this. We hope and pray he will do needful.