• Thursday, May 23, 2024
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BusinessDay

Re: “Don’t ban tobacco production and consumption”

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The BusinessDay editorial of September 29, 2014 was a timely admonition to Nigeria’s National Assembly on the futility of banning tobacco production and consumption in Nigeria. The tobacco issue is one that has been in contention in the public space. While the tobacco industry has typically taken the position that what tobacco needs is firm and balanced regulation rather than a ban on its production or consumption, the anti-tobacco NGOs have generally argued otherwise.

It is refreshing to see a fully neutral player, namely BusinessDay with no business interests to protect and in no danger of justifying any subventions received from overseas sponsors to promote any particular issue, taking a position on this increasingly locally contentious issue.

The BusinessDay editorial gave some background into the debate that held on the floor of the Senate in relation to this issue and an overview of some of the positions that are held by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the tobacco industry itself on the question of tobacco advertising. Finally, it hinged its position on the ban on the question of the fundamental human rights of the individual. In so doing, it aligned with the views of Senator Abdul Ningi of Bauchi Central, which essence posited that human beings must not be deprived of the freedom to choose. Having been availed all of the information relating to smoking and its demerits, an adult should be free to choose to smoke or not to smoke. That was the basis of this position.

While the issue of fundamental human rights is critical to the question of banning or not banning tobacco production and consumption, there are several additional critical elements which the editorial did not mention but which are incidental to the tobacco question.

One of these issues for instance, is the provision of jobs. Many Nigerians must remember a recent episode where several young job seekers lost their lives during a job recruitment exercise by a government agency. While there may be questions about the modus operandi of the said exercise, the fundamental truth is that the exercise hallmarked the fact that unemployment has reached an unacceptable high in Nigeria. The tobacco industry currently provides gainful employment, directly and indirectly, for thousands of Nigerians. It may be interesting to imagine the economic multiplier that this translates to in a communal Nigeria where one gainfully employed person can provide sustenance to a wide circle of nuclear and extended family members. Now, what is the likely fate of these dependants in the event that the plug is pulled on the tobacco industry?

While it may stand to reason that one cannot justify health implications with economic gains, one must also realistically ask the question: were a ban to be placed on the production of tobacco in Nigeria, would people automatically stop smoking? As anyone who is sincere to himself knows, such a ban will not stop people from smoking. In fact what is more likely to happen is that genuine entrepreneurs on one hand and smugglers on the other, will quickly latch onto the opportunity of filling the vacuum created by the exit of the formal tobacco manufacturers, to import huge quantities of cigarettes into Nigeria.

The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, MAN, has asserted that in such a situation, Nigeria would merely have outsourced jobs to citizens of other countries, having deprived its own citizens of jobs locally by “killing” its tobacco manufacturing industry.

In importing cigarettes into the country, entrepreneurs, will naturally be driven squarely by the profit motive. Of course, not being manufacturing entities, they would recruit only a handful of staff whose sole mission would be to dispose of the container loads of imported cigarettes as expeditiously as possible. It wouldn’t matter in such a situation whether or not such cigarettes were being sold to under-aged teens. It wouldn’t matter either, if such cigarette packs bore any public health warnings from the Federal Ministry of Health or indeed if the so-called warnings on the packs were inscribed in Arabic or Chinese language.  The cigarettes are also less likely to have been subjected to laboratory tests for conformity with internationally acceptable standards.

The smuggled cigarette category poses even far worse prospects for Nigeria. For one, smuggled cigarettes will deprive Nigeria of the revenues it hitherto derived from the formal tobacco industry by way of taxes and excise duties on cigarettes.

Secondly as the experience in many countries combating the scourge of organized crime and terrorism has shown, cigarette smuggling is a favoured mode of money laundering both by criminal gangs and terrorist groups, respectively. The reason is two-fold. One, the penalties for smuggling cigarettes are lightweight and more often than not, it is seen as a victimless crime.  The other reason is that cigarettes are of high demand and yield high profits especially given that no taxes or excise duties would have been paid on them, being smuggled products.

In a country like Nigeria, reeling from the impact of home-grown insurgency including kidnappings in the south and terrorism in the north, the aforementioned possibilities should compel us to tread as warily as practicable in handling the tobacco issue.

True, the World Health Organization, WHO, may have handed down a number of prescriptions with regard to curbing smoking across the world. The duty of parliaments and governments across the world, however, is not to swallow these prescriptions in their entirety. Rather, they owe it a duty to their countries to examine aspects of such prescriptions that are feasible and which if fully implemented will not create other problems, some worse than the original problem they sought to address.

The aforementioned, therefore, highlights why it is important for government to demonstrate immense circumspection regarding the issue of tobacco regulation even in the face of sometimes highly emotional campaigns against tobacco and the tobacco industry.

As many, including the organized private sector have argued, what the government needs to take more seriously, is the question of robust, practical and enforceable regulation. Such regulation is one that would have emanated from robust engagement between government and all of the relevant stakeholders including government regulatory agencies, NGOs, law enforcement agencies and of course, the tobacco manufacturers and retailers among others. The argument that the tobacco manufacturers will deliberately sabotage any such process of engagement is a rather archaic one now, that doesn’t hold water. The tobacco industry is part and parcel of society and is privy to the public mood regarding tobacco. Indeed, in Nigeria, the tobacco industry has long discontinued the advertising and promotion of its products in the mass media. The long-term sustainability of the industry is obviously tied to how responsibly it discharges its duties. This aim for long term sustainability is also demonstrated by the fact that the tobacco industry has for many years been at the frontline of research into the evolution of less harmful alternatives to cigarettes. At the last count, e-cigarettes have emerged as a product of such investment in research and development and researching into less harmful alternatives is a strategy which many believe may bring solution to the health implications of smoking.

Such progress in the development of less harmful alternatives can only come in an environment in which laws and policies pertaining to tobacco are balanced having taken an overall view of all contending issues. It is such a situation that Nigeria’s lawmakers and policy makers should strive for by engaging all the sundry stakeholders and painstakingly hearing them out before inking tobacco laws.

AKEEM OGUNLADE