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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Who wants Tobacco Control Bill dead?

In one week, it will be exactly one year since the National Assembly passed the National Tobacco Control Bill. But as the world awaits another No Tobacco Day, many are worried that President Goodluck Jonathan is yet to sign the Bill into law, reports OLUKOREDE YISHAU
Minister of Health Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu appeared serious on Monday while addressing the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland. The minister said Nigeria was dedicated to domesticating the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a World Health Organisation (WHO) treaty, which the country ratified several years back. 
Chukwu’s claim angered many tobacco control advocates. As far as they were concerned, the minister was not being sincere. Their reason: almost one year after the National Assembly passed the National Tobacco Control Bill, which is meant to domesticate the FCTC, President Goodluck Jonathan has not signed it into law. So, they believe only through the signing into law of the Bill which in can the country claim dedication to the FCTC. 
Following the minister’s statement in Geneva, the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) urged him to ensure the Bill  is signed into law.
The group said the Bill, when it becomes an Act, will prevent an imminent tobacco epidemic.
ERA/FoEN, in a letter to the minister, said the failure of the President  to assent the Bill would not only reverse efforts to wean the youth off smoking, but also threaten the country’s leadership position in global tobacco control efforts.
The group said Nigeria having signed and ratified the FCTC is bound to domesticate it through the Bill.
The tobacco bill, sponsored by Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora, was passed by the Senate on March 15, 2011 and concurred by the House of Representatives on May 31, last year. The signature of the President is required to make the bill law.
ERA/FoEN, in a statement by its Executive Director, Nnimmo Bassey, said: “Our plea for the minister to intervene at this crucial time is a patriotic call to save Nigerians from the tobacco industry’s commitment to advocating weak legislation that will ensure they continue business as usual thereby worsening our health burden.
“After the overwhelming support the bill received in the Senate and House of Representatives, it is sad that till date, it has not been signed by the President. The intervention of the Health Minister is a singular action that generations of Nigerians will not forget. Giving Nigerians this gift as we mark the 2012 World No Tobacco Day will be remarkable.” 
Bassey reminded the minister of his promise during last year’s World No Tobacco Day to ensure the Bill gets presidential assent speedily. 
Does anyone want the Bill dead?
Tobacco Control advocates believe that tobacco giants such as the British American Tobacco (BAT) and  Phillip Morris (Altria), which partially acquired the International Tobacco Company (ITC) based in Ilorin, Kwara State, do not want the Bill to become law. 
A source said: “There are speculations that the British American Tobacco Nigeria has also gotten in touch with some key government people especially in the Standards Organisation of Nigeria and the Ministry of Trade. The tobacco industry is said to be in disagreement with two important sections of the bill, which they want expunged. One of the sections is the non inclusion of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria in the membership of the National Tobacco Control Committee as provided for in the bill. Recently, there were talks of meeting between the Health Minister and his Trade counterpart, to iron out issues of concern on the bill, but the meeting didn’t hold. Our position is that if there is anything to be done on the bill, it can always go for amendments. That is what the National committee is there for. The SON also is in disagreement with some of the oversight functions it was allotted in the bill. Now, the SON wanted to be the chief implementation agency for the bill. We believe that the tobacco industry may be using all of these issues against the bill.”
ERA’s Director, Corporate Accountability, Mr. Akinbode Oluwafemi, said the big tobacco companies are working against the Bill. 
Oluwafemi said: “The big tobaccoare doing their best to ensure regulations are not enforced in line with the FCTC by using tactics hidden under  Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to hoodwink people in government into toeing their way at the risk of the people’s health. These tactics include: partnership agreements between government and industry; industry-run programmes claiming to prevent youth smoking; and training for farmers.”
Really, the Bill, when it becomes law, has the potential to reduce the population of smokers and thus decimate the profits of the tobacco giants. This, said a source, is enough reason for them to frustrate it.
Some of the potentially ‘damaging’ parts include: creating smoke free public places,  banning of all forms of advertisement,  promotion, marketing and sponsorship of tobacco products, restricting the sale of tobacco products to persons under the age of 18, compelling the tobacco industry to disclose the level of nicotine in cigarettes, inscribing health warnings on every pack of cigarettes in accordance with FCTC requirement of 50 per cent total display area and ban on sale of single sticks cigarettes and the ban on sale of cigarettes less than 20 pieces in a single pack.
Loud silence from BATN?
Attempt by The Nation to get BATN’s reactions to its ‘grouses’ with the Bill as passed by the National Assembly and the allegation that it was stalling the signing of the Bill yielded no result. Its spokesman, Aliyu Lawal, acknowledged receipt of questions sent to him on Monday  and promised to get back the following day. As at the time of going to press yesterday, he shifted the goalpost again by saying the ‘clean copy’ of the responses would be ready today. 
The terms of BAT’s Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with BAT allow the company to build a $150 million cigarette manufacturing factory in Ibadan. The factory, which was commissioned on June 17, 2003, was seen by the government as a huge Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the country. BATN also sees it as such, a fact attested to by its Managing Director, Beverly Spencer-Obatoyinbo in a paper she presented last March at a breakfast meeting organised by the Nigerian British Chamber of Commerce. 
 Prior to BATN’s formal entry into the Nigerian market, it acquired the shares of the moribund Nigerian Tobacco Company (NTC) in 2000. The deal granted the company access to the infrastructure and manpower of the NTC. It also included the take-over of the thousands of tobacco farmers. BATN also upgraded its Zaria factory with a new GDX1 machine capable of producing 7,200 sticks per minute. 
Losses to cigarette smoking
But as BATN smiles to the bank, Akinsola Owoeye, a tobacco control advocate with the Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance (NTCA), said many are frowning either to the graves or hospitals.  
Owoeye  said:  ”Despite the promises made by the government and tobacco industry, death toll began to rise in Nigeria after BATN came in. A survey in Lagos State showed an increase in smoking prevalence from 8.9 per cent to 10 per cent, and prevalence of heavy smoking which rose to 16.3 per cent. It also shows that two persons die in the state daily from tobacco related diseases. Using the conservative estimates of Lagos State, it means each state in Nigeria has spent at least N2,847,000,000 ($ 18,058,992) to treat smokers in hospitals. Multiply that amount by the 37 states in Nigeria, it also means that Nigeria lost N105,339,000,000 ($668,182,708) in one year. If this figure is justifiable, it clearly makes nonsense of the 10 billion naira ($6,343,165) per year, tax paid by BATN.” 
The latest edition of the Tobacco Atlas shows that two per cent of men’s deaths in the country are linked to tobacco use. It says the country loses $591 million annually to tobacco use in terms of health care and related expenses. About 17 million sticks of cigarettes are smoked in the country annually. 
No wonder the  President of the Washington DC-based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK), Matt Myers, said the country is losing a lot by not domesticating the FCTC. Myers, who spoke with this reporter at the World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Singapore, said: “If I meet President Goodluck Jonathan, I will tell him that one thing he needs to do quickly that will save the lives of many Nigerians is to sign the Tobacco Control Bill and guarantee that the country will implement it right away. If the Tobacco Bill is signed and implemented, it will save literally over the course of time millions of Nigerians from death. Most importantly, it will protect Nigerian young people from lifetime tobacco addiction and premature deaths.”
Senate President David Mark, during deliberations on the Bill, said the damage tobacco use does to the country is enough for health to take precedence over any other considerations. 
Will Jonathan play ball?
Will Jonathan heed the call of the tobacco control advocates, the WHO and others to sign the Bill into law or will he, as alleged, dance to the tune of the tobacco giants--- which appear unhappy with some of its provisions?  It is a matter of time.