The article titled “A case for Prudent Regulation of the Tobacco Industry” written by one Akeem Ogunlade of the Centre for Promotion of Enterprise and Business Best Practices is a fascinating read for followers of the public discourse about getting Nigeria to implement effective measures towards reducing tobacco addiction and its associated public health impacts.
In his article, Ogunlade simply powdered trite arguments of the tobacco industry that an effective tobacco control policy will harm the economy and, as such, what Nigeria really needs is the industry promoted – “Sensible Regulation,” “Balanced Regulation” which he colorfully explains away as “Prudent Regulation”.
He goes on to describe tobacco control as controversial. Ironically, it is not. It is in fact, the tobacco industry that creates this perception so that it can manipulate issues and stay in business.
Tobacco is lethal. It kills. It harms public health and ruins a nation’s efforts towards Sustainable Development. Tobacco currently kills more than seven million people each year. More than six million of these deaths are those who use tobacco directly while another 890,000 die from exposure to second-hand smoke.
Worried by the rising deaths from tobacco use, the World Health Organisation (WHO) initiated the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) which was adopted by the 56th World Health Assembly in May 2003 as the first global public health treaty. Nigeria became party to this treaty in 2005.
Nigeria domesticated the treaty through the National Tobacco Control Act, 2015 but the journey was a tortuous one which took almost ten years. Those years were fraught with scare-mongering by the tobacco industry and their many front groups hired to hype an alternate reality: that tobacco control would lead to job losses, shutdown of tobacco companies and a cutback on government revenue.
But public health experts know that those faulty arguments only reinforce the WHO caution in Article 5.3 of the FCTC that there exists an irreconcilable conflict between tobacco industry interests and public health policies. Article 5. 3 of the FCTC, which Ogunlade referenced in a deliberately skewed manner, says that “in setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law”.
The goal of tobacco control is to save lives from tobacco addiction while tobacco manufacturing, distribution and retailing seeks only to profit from harming the lives of consumers. “Balanced Regulation”, “Sensible Regulation” or so-called “Prudent Regulation” as being promoted by the tobacco industry is that which diminishes the sanctity of life at the altar of corporate greed. It’s that kind of Regulation that keeps the tobacco industry in their comfort zone, maintaining high record profits while our brothers and sisters wallow in disease and preventable deaths.
Fact is, with the FCTC, nations around the world are unanimous that in the case of any conflict between the profits of tobacco companies and public health, public health should take precedence.
The fairy tale argument on a link between high taxes and increase in tobacco smuggling and counterfeiting was brought to the fore again in Ogunlade’s piece. If not intended to deliberately confuse the public, the high tax and smuggling nexus is far from the truth. In fact, investigations show that on the contrary, the tobacco industry is behind smuggling of tobacco products. It is established that taxes work to prevent youth initiation, reduce consumption rates while at the same time raise government revenue.
Since the 1990s, incontrovertible evidence has shown that the tobacco industry has been actively involved in smuggling of tobacco products as a business strategy. This strategy is to saturate markets with products far exceeding what local populations can consume. The excess would ultimately be sold elsewhere and for the tobacco industry, it gets paid regardless of how and where the products are sold. In Canada, subsidiaries of Japan Tobacco and British America Tobacco (BAT), and a company partly owned by Philip Morris International (PMI) were found guilty of tobacco smuggling and collectively fined C$1.7 billion (£1 billion) over a 10-year period spanning 2000 to 2010 when the cases went to court.
The Guardian of London, working with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in January 2000, published an investigation into BAT‘s operations which included the facilitation of tobacco smuggling. Some 11,000 internal documents of the tobacco industry sieved through during the investigation exposed how BAT employees did not partake but condoned tax evasion and exploited the smuggling of billions of cigarettes in a global effort to boost sales and lure generations of new smokers. The target markets werein Canada, Latin America and Asia.
Most disturbing was that the documents revealed that the smuggling “channels” which the company’s cigarettes travelled along were always operated and managed by others and it used euphemisms – including “duty not paid”, “general trade” and “transit” – to describe smuggling channels.
In 2004, Philip Morris agreed to pay $1.25 billion (£670 million) to avoid a raft of lawsuits alleging that it is complicit in the smuggling of billions of cigarettes into the European Union. The company was said to have been complicit in smuggling Marlboro and other brands into the EU – where cigarettes are heavily taxed – by deliberately over-supplying countries with lower duties.
The excess would then be smuggled into EU countries and sold in the black market thereby depriving governments of tax and customs revenue.
Perhaps the most disturbing recommendation in Ogunlade’s article is his case for so-called “safe alternatives” to the conventional cigarettes which he described as products with “lesser risks”. We assume that he is referring to E-cigarettes and the controversial heat-not-burn products. He listed Canada, US and UK as countries where the regulatory approach to tobacco control is “progressive”. Whatever that means, this is far from the truth. The writer makes no mention of the recent US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) alarm that the number of teenagers using one of the suggested alternatives – E-cigarettes – in that country has surged by 75 percent, egged on by a boom in flavoured products.
The FDA described E-cigarettes as a scourge in U.S. schools, with students often vaping in the bathrooms or between classes. According to the 2018 federal survey figures, one in five high school students indulge in vaping. This development preceded an FDA crackdown on sale of E-cigarettes to minors including making it harder to buy flavored products online since that is how most young people start the journey to addiction.
The safety of the E-cigarettes and heat-not-burn products has generally been called to question by recent researches. For instance, some researchers who worked with PMI and helped coordinate clinical trials on its iQOS product questioned the quality of some of the researchers and sites contracted to carry out experiments. Tamara Koval who worked with PMI between 2012 and 2014 particularly highlighted irregularities in one of the studies on the product.
A new study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, reveals that 60 percent of nicotine-free e-cigarettes sold contain pesticides and this is inhaled by smokers of the product. In Hong Kong, vapers are threatened with jail terms in the government’s plan to push ahead with a blanket ban on all e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn products.
Whatever the intent of Ogunlade’s rhetoric is for advocating for more space for tobacco entities to manipulate tobacco control, it is anti-public health and anti-public good. What Nigeria needs at this moment is conscientious and stringent enforcement of provisions of the National Tobacco Control Act, 2015. The nation should also not lag in introducing additional Regulations to combat novel products and close the loopholes in the current Act.
As at today, Nigeria is not even near in ranking with other African countries like Ghana, Niger, Kenya, Ethiopia, Senegal to mention a few, who have put in place effective tobacco control measures. Within the sphere of policy, government at all levels in this country must now act fast in rejecting the ploy to make our nation a dumping ground for tobacco products that pre-disposes our citizens, especially our young people, to diseases, disability and ultimately death.
By Oluchi Joy Robert, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN)