Thompson: TCA Implementation Will Check Illicit Importation

0

Director of the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis, a public policy think-tank promoting the institutions of free society in Nigeria, Ayodele Thompson spoke to Eromosele Abiodun on how Nigeria’s porous borders fuel illicit importation and trade in tobacco in the country, as well as how the implementation of the Tobacco Control Act will sanitise the industry and the role of IPPA in ensuring that Nigeria is not short-changed. Excerpts:

The Nigerian tobacco industry has been in the spotlight lately with many groups, including yours, holding strongly to divergent views. You have been accused by anti-tobacco campaigners as a major promoter of the tobacco industry. Why do you promote the tobacco industry so strongly?

The Initiative for Public Policy Analysis (IPPA) mission is focused on promotion of free enterprise in Nigeria. In this regard, IPPA supports and promotes policies that enhance domesticating the production of everything the country consumes. Our mission also propels us to promote policies and initiatives that are geared towards growing Nigeria’s industrial capacity. IPPA sees this as vital because the nation cannot rely on crude oil exploration forever in the absence of developing the industrial base. The organisation’s purview therefore encompasses Nigeria’s industrial growth and policies aimed at accelerating the growth and jobs creation.

Tobacco consumption is generally considered to be dangerous to health, which the anti-tobacco campaigners have been highlighting. Are you not being paid by the tobacco companies to focus on the economic benefits of tobacco production and not the health consequences?

No one can deny the perceived health consequences of tobacco consumption. This is a point of agreement with the anti-tobacco groups. But what they fail to realise is that tobacco consumption is a lifestyle choice, similar to alcohol and sugar consumption. No legislation can completely eradicate lifestyle choices. A nation that tries to legislate against individuals’ lifestyle choices is trying to waste tax-payers resources. The greater challenge is restricting youth access to tobacco products and illegal trade. Since cigarette consumption can’t be banned, it is only proper for Nigeria to implement and promote policies that will ensure that the tobacco industry is well regulated so that the intended end-view is achieved while at the same time the country benefits from localising production.

Since you agree that there are health consequences associated with tobacco consumption, why don’t you join people campaigning for the closure of tobacco production in Nigeria in order to show that you truly care for Nigerians?

For us, tobacco is a legal product and the focus should not be on prohibition as agitated for by some groups. It should also be on ensuring regulation in place is enforced. Smokers will still smoke. The absence of local, well regulated production ultimately opens the door to the illicit importation of cigarettes such as flavoured cigarettes that has been well communicated by the regulator, Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and others in that category. These products have not been tested or approved locally and smokers still need to be protected. Since local production adheres to rules set locally, localising production makes it much easier to monitor and regulate the activities of tobacco companies, which wholesale importation will not allow. From public policy point of view, it makes sense to localise production rather than import.

You raised an interesting issue about the anti-tobacco campaigners being sponsored by foreign bodies with special interest in Nigeria. Do you doubt that their campaign is not altruistic?

IPPA does not doubt that anti-tobacco campaigners love Nigeria and Nigerians. They simply do not get their facts right. What surprises many about their operation is the source of their funding. One tends to reason that Nigerian government is not sponsoring them because government itself is cash-strapped. If they are actually on the side of the public as they claim, their offices ought not to be in highbrow areas.

How many campaigns against youth smoking have they undertaken in the last five years? How much of public campaigns have they carried out to sensitise Nigerians about the dangers associated with tobacco consumption? It is high time Nigerians question the true motives of the well-off sponsors of the so-called local anti-tobacco groups. If tobacco companies are closed down in Nigeria, cigarettes will be imported from the home countries of the sponsors of the anti-tobacco groups, contributing to their economies while depressing that of Nigeria.

The general perception in Nigeria is that majority of NGOs and lobby groups like yours including the anti-tobacco campaigners are simply profit-oriented fronts with a facade of promoting the common good. Why should Nigerians trust any of you?

To be honest, we would leave this to other non-profit organisations to answer for themselves. We are not their mouthpiece. IPPA is a policy research advocacy group with the sole purpose of promoting Nigeria’s interest. In the last decade, we have engaged with policy-makers, regulators and government at different levels in order to make Nigeria a country where investors flock to with ease of doing business in Nigeria. The bulk of our income comes primarily from advisory services and research that we provide to interested parties, not from donations.

As a matter of fact, donation is a thing of the past for a group such as ours. Because our operations are not tied to any one group, we are not beholden to anyone and our research is not directed or teleguided by anyone. We believe Nigerians should assess the various advocacy groups based on their track records and affiliations. One thing Nigerians must know is that these foreign bodies’ have self-interest over Nigeria’s interests and we need to question the motive for any support received.

Nigeria was praised for passing the Tobacco Control Act (TCA) last year. What is your assessment of its implementation thus far?

If there is anything that the National Assembly achieved, it is the passage of the Tobacco Control Act. The Act was passed after a long and rigorous process. As far as we have seen, the Act is balanced and could serve as a springboard to regulate the industry in such a way that Nigeria’s best interest is served. Although full implementation has not commenced, there is more awareness of what is expected of stakeholders in the industry. The Act also frowns on engaging in illegal activities with such activities attracting severe penalties. The onus is on the Ministry of Health and other concerned agencies to implement the law to the letter while being on the lookout for any infractions. At the end, the TCA should not be just another textbook exercise with taxpayers’ money being used to run in circles. I should be a regulation that is brought to life and not just gathering dust in law libraries.

You say that the legislation is balanced and well thought out but your counterparts on the other side are calling for a review of the Act. Does that not lend credence to the view that the tobacco companies brought undue influence to bear on the public hearings and therefore had the bill tilted to their advantage?

The public hearings availed all interested parties opportunities to present their views. The anti-tobacco groups presented their views as well. No group was left out during the public hearings. In fact the public hearing at the Senate was overtly hostile to the tobacco companies; you can say the Act is tilted slightly against the tobacco companies. What many failed to realise is that the lawmakers were elected to protect the interests of Nigeria and Nigerians and not a particular group. Moreover, the law-makers realised that Nigeria stands to lose big time if the legislation is not well balanced and thought out.

It is disingenuous for these so-called anti-tobacco groups to be calling for a review of a law that has not been implemented since they had virtually all their recommendations adopted by the Senate Committee on Health. It is a waste of taxpayers’ money in this current economic state. Should we just keep churning out laws without implementing them first? It can almost be perceived as an abuse of the legislative process. The provisions of the law especially the sections that deal with flavoured cigarettes and wanton importation of cigarettes into Nigeria need to be tested for effectiveness before calling for a review.

Illicit trade is reported to be a bigger challenge fuelling youth smoking. What can be done to curb youth access to cigarettes?

Illicit trade is a global concern, not restricted to Nigeria. Curbing illicit trade in tobacco is almost impossible because of Nigeria’s porous borders and weak law enforcement. The first step is to ensure that only approved products are imported or produced in Nigeria; stricter monitoring of leisure places to ensure that the law is not breached; national campaign targeting primary and secondary schools on the dangers of smoking; restricting access to cigarettes to only people above 18 years and enforcement agencies rising up to this national and global challenge, among other initiatives.

Why is it so difficult for tobacco campaigners, whether pro or anti, and regulators, to come together to fashion out ways young people’s access to tobacco products can be drastically curtailed?

We have an open door policy and we are always willing to engage anybody or group on policies and practices that affect Nigerians and their businesses. What is clear from the tobacco campaign over the years is the level of foreign influence; the interest being shown in tobacco issues are mainly pecuniary. There is a lot of donor money floating around globally. It serves the interest of a few people to arrogate to themselves the sole preserve of championing anti-tobacco issues so as to keep attracting flurry of funds while ignoring the bigger issues such as youth access to cigarettes and illicit trade, which they should ideally focus their energies more on.

You mentioned the impossibility of legislating lifestyle choices out of existence and that people who chose to smoke will do regardless. How can the industry be made more responsible for their products?

The tobacco industry has a value chain, from farmers to producers and distributors to traders. If tobacco companies are made to account for how their products are distributed and who gets what, they will invest a lot more resources to ensure that the last mile of the value chain deals responsibly. It bears pointing out that without a local tobacco industry, you cannot hold anybody liable for how the tobacco products are distributed in Nigeria.

The Minister of Health recently inaugurated the National Tobacco Control Committee which is seen as a major step towards stricter regulation of the tobacco industry. Do you see the committee as a game-changer?

It is appropriate to let the public know that the committee is a creation of the Tobacco Control Act. If the committee is made up of people who have the best interest of Nigeria at heart, then its impact will be felt widely. However, from what we are seeing, the foreign groups and their local appendages have infiltrated the committee so much so that members of the committee take directives from these foreign bodies and seem to rubber stamp what this group says. This portends a dangerous trend. For example, why is it focused on drafting new regulations and not the enforcement as directed in the Act? The committee will likely go the way of some others before it, whose members were more interested in sponsored trips to international conferences and other such inanities.

If we can’t stop people from smoking by fiat, how can Nigerians benefit from hosting tobacco production companies, beyond the contribution of the companies to government’s income?

One of the biggest benefits is that localising production ensures that you can effectively monitor and enforce rigorous standards. You can also make the producers to be more responsible for how their products are dispensed. Without the local producers, you simply can’t hold anybody responsible for selling cigarettes to people who are under the legal age. Therefore, localising production also creates thousands of jobs along the entire value chain. Without these tobacco companies, the pressure on scarce foreign exchange would have been greater.

Although Nigeria is not high up on the number of cigarettes consumed per annum, rated 145 out of 185 countries, don’t you think we are focusing too much energy on an issue that is not even listed among the 10 biggest challenges the country currently faces? The pro industry and anti-tobacco groups seem to be making a din in order to feather their nest.

That is the point. As mentioned earlier, our main interest is on policies that seek to strengthen Nigeria’s industrial capacity and not policies that will whittle it down. Nigeria is ranked very low on smoking prevalence, with South Africa, Egypt, Cameroon and many other countries in Africa ranked far above Nigeria because smoking is not very fashionable here.

There is a lot of money floating around that is being used to constrain the production of tobacco in Nigeria while the countries where these funds emanated from keep expanding their tobacco production capacity. It is interesting to note also that these foreign bodies have not been able to reduce smoking rates or tobacco production in their home countries. Why Africa? Why Nigeria? This simply reflects the thinking of anti-tobacco funders: we know what is good for them.