Tobacco Industry Super Powers, Monopoly and Government Patronage: A Compromise of Public Health Akomas Brent

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Any organisation, agency or government in the world today that has not taken its turn to condemn corruption in Nigeria is one that has not found a way to take advantage or get around it. And you will most certainly not find the world’s major players in the tobacco industry in this category.

The overbearing power and influence of these principalities who reign over the Nigerian tobacco industry have ravaged any semblances of resistance by industry regulators and policy makers who wait eagerly to be compromised to the detriment of the Nigerian public.

Bearing a striking resemblance to the small and light duty weapons manufacturers in the United States, the leading tobacco manufacturers and marketers in Nigeria exert significant influence over the politics, policies, regulations and control of the tobacco industry. In the case of Nigeria, the monopoly in the tobacco industry is almost one exerted by foreign companies who appear to have little or no stake in our public health system.

There is no deficit of treaties, conventions and legislations in Nigeria for the regulation and control of the tobacco industry; rather there is a severe deficit of systemic and individual integrity which betray their capacity to enforce compliance.

To underscore our negative disposition, there are indications that the National Tobacco Control Committee recently inaugurated by Minister of Health to implement the National Tobacco Control Act (NTCA) has been infiltrated and deflated by Nigeria’s tobacco industry giants who insist on breaking every barrier to deliver death to our people and along the way stamping out every local competitor in a bid to perpetuate and satisfy their monopolistic tendencies.

Some of the regulatory and enforcement tools available include:
* FCTC: The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is an international treaty negotiated under the auspices of the WHO, which Nigeria signed as a party in June 2004. This document sets forth a guideline for tobacco control within the domain of a party and protocol for intervention and enforcement.

* The National Tobacco Control Bill (NTCB): This Bill has been passed by the National Assembly since 2009. The contents of this bill, if implemented conscientiously, will protect the health of Nigerians from tobacco related diseases, safeguard innocent adolescents from unwitting initiation into tobacco addiction, and streamline regulations and enforcement of applicable laws and conventions, among others.

* The Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON): The Standards Organisation of Nigeria is an instrument of government for protecting the public from harmful products and unsafe business practices. It is another evidence that we have the tools to adequately implement the mandate of the FCT, NTCB and all other tobacco control regulations but we remain deeply compromised in our responsibility to give effect to our laws.

* The Nigerian Industrial Standards (NIS): There is also the Nigerian Industrial Standards agency whose mandate includes quality control, sampling and testing of all products imported, distributed, manufactured for local sale or marketed in Nigeria. The NIS through its Technical Committee on Standards for Tobacco and Tobacco Products has replaced its 2014 specifications with a new 2016 edition (NIS463) in response to escalating consumption of cigarettes, increasing illicit trade in tobacco products and to increase pressure on manufacturers and marketers to provide adequate information to the public on the associated risks and hazards of smoking. All that sounds good, if it can be matched with action.

African governments have shown leadership and commitment in efforts to control HIV, Polio, Ebola, etc. They must be similarly resolved to eliminate cigarette associated diseases from the continent.
The manufacture, distribution and marketing of tobacco and tobacco products must be recognised and treated as a health epidemic concern. According to one NGO, Safety Net for Children (SNC), certain provisions in the 2016 review document by the Technical Committee on Standards for Tobacco and Tobacco products may well be a ploy to retain the patronage of kid-smokers.

The NGO points at item 4.7 of the review document which states as follows: “Flavouring substances, excluding Menthol, with potential to initiate or appeal to children, such as strawberry, banana, apple, among others should not be used in the manufacturing of cigarette”. Conveniently, it was forgotten that Menthol itself is a flavour!

This is not surprising considering that cigarettes with Menthol Flavour happen to be top of the line product of the major cigarettes giants in Nigeria. This is why SNC queries the exclusion of Menthol from the list. In the opinion of SNC, “the retention of Menthol and exclusion of other flavours is incapable of discouraging children and young adults from the corruption of tobacco products for the simple reason that they will merely retain their patronage of Menthol cigarette which had been aggressively marketed to them much more than any other flavour.”

Civil societies and non-governmental organisations have contributed in no small measure in the eradication and control of health epidemics and social vices in our communities. However, non-governmental and community outreach efforts have been limited in success in the campaign against distribution, supply and marketing of tobacco products because it is negotiated as a business rather than as a health concern.

We are, therefore, advocating a shift in paradigm which focuses exclusively on the consumption of tobacco products as a health epidemic issue.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which is the basis of our National Tobacco Control Act (NTCA), in its contemplation considers the tobacco industry and those working in its interest as diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive from public health and those working in its interest.
Since government in Nigeria presumably works in the interest of public health, we find government’s patronage of the Nigerian tobacco industry a condemnable contradiction. We, therefore, urge the government to:

– Terminate all partnerships with any operator in the tobacco industry.
– Terminate any grant-in-aid to any operator in the tobacco industry.
– Withdraw all incentives to operators in the tobacco industry.
– Discontinue any patronage to or from any operator in the tobacco industry.
– Monitor and implement a fair and equitable regulation.

– Impose extreme sanction on any agency or individual found in compromise.
Black lives and, in fact, all lives matter in America and should matter in Nigeria. When America and other advanced economies became inundated with cases of cigarette related deaths, diseases and rising national health budgets, they evolved decisive policies to check the menace of these merchants of death, forcing them to move shop to Africa and other vulnerable destinations. We have resolved not to make them comfortable in Nigeria because Black Lives Matter.
––Brent, the chairman, Safety Net for Children, writes from Owerri.