Prons and cons of tobacco control debate

By IAfrica
In Nigeria
Jun 1st, 2014
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The “No Tobacco Day” was marked on  May 31. In some parts of the world, there are laws regulating the sale and promotion of  tobacco. But Nigeria has yet to get such a law. Can it aim to control the tobacco trade without that law? Assistant Editor, MUYIWA LUCAS, writes.

Globally, the tobacco industry is perceived in bad light. It is a business many love to hate because its products endanger life.  Tobacco smoking, doctors say, is not good for health. Non-smokers too are affected by tobacco fumes. It is not surprising that like, in other countries, various stakeholders in Nigeria have either called for the prohibition of tobacco or its regulation. The Nigeria National Tobacco Control Bill (NNTCB) to control tobacco business and use is lying at the National Assembly.

Civil society groups have expressed worry over the slow pace of passing the Bill, saying that its non-passage has violated the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC), which Nigeria signed in 2004. The NNTCB is a comprehensive law which when passed, will regulate the manufacturing, advertising distribution and consumption of tobacco products in Nigeria. It also aims to domesticate the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) because Nigeria is a signatory to that convention. The major highlight of the bill is the prohibition of smoking in public places, such as restaurants and bars, public transport, schools and hospitals.

The West Africa Sub-Regional Coordinator, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Mrs. Hilda Ochefu, urged the law makers to be resolute in ensuring early passage of the bill because the situation was bad for the nation’s healthcare delivery index. Similarly, the Director, Environment Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Akinbode Oluwafemi, said Nigeria had lost many talented sportsmen, musicians and journalists to tobacco-related illnesses. For him, tobacco production as well as other corporate activities related to cigarette manufacturing should be regulated in the country. “It is necessary to partner with the government on issues such as this to protect public health,” he said.

It was, therefore, heart warming when Governor Babatunde Fashola on February 16, this year, signed the Lagos State Anti-Smoking Bill into law. The law bans  cigarette smoking in public places, such as public toilets, tertiary institutions, public transport, shopping centres, stadia and restaurants. The law also compelled management of public places to conspicuously display “No Smoking” sign at appropriate positions within their premises and criminalise smoking by minors.

Also, the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) has held a parley with other stakeholders  on the Lagos tobacco law. According to the General Manager/Chief Executive Officer of LASEPA, Mr. Rasheed Shabi, the tobacco law will not infringe on the rights of smokers. “Smokers have the right to smoke. Non-smokers too have a right not to be impacted by the smoke from the cigarettes in their personal space. Vulnerabe groups, such as children and senior citizens also have the right to be protected, while everyone has the basic right to clear air. Our society has to find a balance to the delicate interrelationships between all groups involved such that no person’s right is violated. This is the essence of the state restriction on this non-smoking law in public places,” he said.

At the parley, the representative of British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN), Mr. Sola Dosunmu, praised the Lagos State House of Assembly for the passage of the law and that having studied the law, the tobacco firm’s verdict is that it is balanced and respects choices. “We have studied the law and we, particularly, liked the fact that it is balanced and respect choices. There are key facts about the public place smoking law which we want to highlight. Section 1 defines public places to exclude streets, roads, highways etc. Section 2 states that from the commencement of the law, no person shall smoke in all public places listed in schedule one which includes creches, nursery, primary and secondary schools, health institutions, public transportations,” Dosunmu said.

Tobacco control to be succinct is about reducing or eradicating the effects of tobacco smoke on the consumer. The question, however, is that, has the war on tobacco smoking control failed or worked? As the world marked another World No Tobacco Day last Saturday, it became pertinent that all proponents for and against tobacco control policies should evaluate if the tobacco control policies or the drive for its implementation in several countries globally failed or succeeded. Different schools of thought have begun to emerge to look critically at the push for several policies and the appropriate strategies that may be deemed effective for those whom the policies wish to affect.

According to WHO, “the tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced, killing nearly six million people a year. This submission by the world health body supports the position of various advocacy groups that cigarette smoking is harmful to human health, and poses a serious threat to public health. Sadly, of a global one billion smokers, about 80 per cent live in low and middle income countries, where the burden of tobacco-related illness and death is heaviest. It is understandable why there is apprehension in the country over the tobacco policy and the continued delay in the passage of the anti-tobacco bill.

Although the Global Adult Survey on smoking in Nigeria and a 2012 Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that Nigeria is among the countries which have a low incidence of smoking, however, the percentage incidence issue should not deter the push for a tobacco control law to be in place in the country.

Besides, Nigeria is a signatory to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) of 2004, which was ratified in 2005, hence, there is need to take steps to check the use of tobacco. But, what approach should this take?

One way of doing this is, going by WHO’s findings, by increasing the tax on tobacco. This is a strong recommendation under the WHO FCTC, which says that countries should implement tax and price policies on tobacco products to reduce tobacco consumption. The body submits that various researches show that higher taxes are especially effective in reducing tobacco use among lower-income groups and in preventing young people from  smoking. It noted that a tax increase that takes tobacco prices up by 10 per cent discourages tobacco consumption by about four per cent in high-income countries and by up to eight per cent in most low- and middle-income countries.

Furthermore, increasing excise taxes on tobacco is considered to be the most cost-effective tobacco control measure. A WHO report in 2010 indicated that a 50 per cent increase in tobacco excise taxes would generate a little more than $ 1.4 billion in additional funds in 22 low-income countries. If allocated to health, the report said, the government health spending in these countries could increase by up to 50 per cent.

A sociologist, and Principal Partner, Action for Sustainable Development, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), Mayowa Sodipo, agrees with the regulation of tobacco. He however cautioned that there was a need to be careful in dealing with the trade, because if the business is over regulated or stifled, then illegal trading in tobacco will be the order of the day. “In a country where we do not have the capacity to deal with smugglers, where we contend with porous borders and the criminality surrounding the illegal tobacco trade, then we will simply leave our public health to faceless cabals whom we will find difficult to deal with,” Sodipo argues.

Buttressing his point, he cited Canada, which he said is one of the strictest anti-tobacco legislation,where a harsh anti-tobacco legislation can backfire. With the exception of Quebec, Alberta and the Northwest Territories, it is illegal to smoke in any vehicle that is carrying a child; while in many of the country’s provinces, it is illegal to smoke in any public place or in a car carrying a child.

This legislation, he believes, has placed tobacco business in Canada in the firm control of bootleggers. Besides, the tobacco quality is not guaranteed, while proceed from illicit trading in tobacco has been traced to funding of criminal gangs that operate outside  Quebec. A report on a research conducted by Fraser Institute in CBC News, a television station with offices in Montreal and Quebec, seemed to lend credence to this. According to the report, sales of contraband cigarettes are supporting groups, such as the Hells Angels and Hezbollah while tobacco tax policies are doing little to curtail smoking in Canada. “The sale of contraband cigarettes originating from native reserves in Ontario and Quebec is fuelling organised crime.

‘’Smuggling and trafficking of contraband cigarettes is an unintended consequence of federal and provincial tobacco tax policies,” said Diane Katz, a co-author of the report and  director of Risk, Environment and Energy policy at the institute.

Similarly, The Vancouver Sun reported how a smuggling ring based in Montreal was  nabbed by the police. According to the report, the smuggling ring, which was allegedly linked to the mafia and to aboriginal organised crime, was a cross-border operation with bulk tobacco being shipped into Canada by truck from North Carolina. The publication further revealed “locations ranging from St. Leonard to Dundee were raided by police forces, resulting in a total of 28 arrests and the seizure of approximately 40,000 kilogrammes of contraband tobacco, an amount worth approximately $7 million. The investigative force, which consisted of about 400 police officers,  also seized roughly $450, 000, 1, 300 marijuana plants, 14 vehicles, and a 9 mm pistol. The contraband tobacco was supposedly shipped through the Lacolle border crossing, or through the Akwesane aboriginal reserve, and was sold in the Kahnawake aboriginal reserve in  south of Montreal”.

The fears of WHO and other groups are understandable. This is because in some countries, children from poor households are frequently employed in tobacco farming to provide family income. These children are especially vulnerable to “green tobacco sickness”, which is caused by the nicotine that is absorbed through the skin from the handling of wet tobacco leaves.

Besides, tobacco farming, through its processing, is said to be culpable for degrading its operating environment, and violating child labour law on tobacco farms.

The Head of Leaf Operations, British American Tobacco Iseyin Agronomy, BATIA, Mr. Thomas Omofoye, said the company is ensuring that environmental issues are well addressed just like many other concerns which has already been articulated in the guidelines on global sustainability and corporate social responsibility standard practice.

He said BATIA, through instructions and training to farmers had continued to prevent farmers from felling trees to remove the environmental abuse which, the anti-tobacco movement, had often cited against tobacco investors.

“From 2009 to 2013, BATIA had planted 349,853 Malina and 450 timbers (Teak) trees, which are used by the farmer for smoking the tobacco leaves, away to discourage deforestation. Besides, we do not encourage child labour on the farm and the farmers know this; there is a heavy penalty for this. We tell the farmers that it’s not that we are asking their children not to help them on the farm but we emphasise that it should not be during school hours. We have non-government organisations who from time to time monitor compliance in this regard,” Omofoye added.

Buttressing Omofoye’s position is Mr. Alani, a big tobacco farmer in Igboho, Oke-Ogun, Oyo State. He said tobacco farmers have their own trees which they cultivate for use rather than going into the forest to fell trees and destroying the forest in the process.

“For instance, to avoid being tempted into cutting trees from the forest, I planted Malina trees on four hectare of land which I cannot even exhaust in 20 years; these trees have a very fast growth rate,” he noted. Alani said that in Igboho, BATIA denied some farmers from receiving benefits for engaging children in the farm.

“They frown seriously against this practice,” said Alani. Also, a member of Nigeria Independent Tobacco Farmers Association (NITFA, ), Ilua Chapter in Oke Ogun, and a retired teacher, Mr. Emmanuel Egbeleye, said  BATIA has continued to encourage us to plant our own Mailna trees.

“I have been to Sapele and saw how people cut trees but here in tobacco communities, BATIA has partnered with us to plant trees on hectares of land without having to go into the forest to cut trees to process our tobacco leaf,” he said.

The Chairman of NITFA, Alhaji Rasheed Bakare,  advised the government to appreciate the level of progress, employment and life tobacco farming business has brought to communities. “Our understanding is that the government is taking steps towards tobacco business and control. For us, tobacco farmers, tobacco farming is our mainstay. If tobacco is banned, our communities will suffer; people will be thrown out of jobs. We have not felt the impact of the crude oil money in our communities, but we really feel the impact of BATIA here because they have been providing us facilities like projects on environment, boreholes, health centres, etc. They give our children scholarships, which is even extended to non-tobacco farmers. We get bonus for the quality of farm produce,” he said.

Tobacco farming in the region, according to the Oniru of Otu, Oke-Ogun, Oba Sunday Oyetunde Adepoju, is fast making farming to appeal to the youth of the communities considering how the job has changed lives of average farmers.

“Tobacco farming now appeals to our youths. Some of them are returning home while our under age children no longer work in the farm to comply with the child labour law. We have graduates who come here to farm and this has improved the economy of our community. This is just because farmers in our communities now have cars, build houses and could send their children to higher institutions,” he said. For the traditional ruler, tobacco farming is the crude oil generating wealth for his community, and any attempt by the government to stop the trade, he reckons, will have negative effect on the society such as joblessness and increase in crime rate.

Oba Adepoju’s fears are valid. In Oke-Ogun, tobacco farming, in partnership with BATIA, is estimated to generate about N1 billion yearly to the region.

But for Oluwafemi, the perceived incentives from tobacco firms are tricks to kill more Nigerians with tobacco products. Similarly, WHO noted that many governments, especially those large producers of tobacco products and tobacco leaves, fear that tobacco control would generate unemployment among tobacco sector employees. However, the world body says that the tobacco sector represents a small fraction of most countries’ economies.

Sodipo submits that the decision as to whether to smoke or not should be for each individual to make. “At best, smoking should be restricted to exclusive places; definitely not for it to be over regulated or overtaxed because such measures will also come with negative consequences as seen in the Canadian scenario,” he admonished.

Whatever is the outcome of the anti-tobacco bill, Sodipo said what should be avoided is a situation where things go from bad to worse for the citizens the law is meant to protect. This fear may not be misplaced considering that there are countries where this went from fair to bad after the introduction of stiffer anti-tobacco legislation.

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