The Federal Government’s policy on Pictorial Health Warnings (PHWs) which officially kicked off on June 23, 2021, has taken the country a step further in compliance with the recommendations of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC).
By the new policy, all tobacco companies doing business in the country must include the PHWs prescribed by the Federal ministry of Health on all tobacco products manufactured and sold by them in the country. The rules are in conformity with the WHO-FCTC Article 11 which mandates Parties to implement health warnings occupying at least 50% of the tobacco product principal display areas and suggest or recommend? they should contain both pictures and text.
The “Evidence Brief” written by Céline Brassart Olsen, Consultant, WHO Regional Office for Europe, and other public health experts in 2014 reveals that combined written and graphic health messages on the packaging of tobacco products are more effective than text-only warnings, and that images have been shown to increase the awareness of the health risks related to tobacco consumption.
For Nigeria, the new requirement replaces the former which only requires the prescribed message: “The Federal Ministry of Health warns that smokers are liable to die young”. The new requirement is also in line with directives of the National Tobacco Control Regulations 2019 that new health warnings come on stream 18 months after the gazettement of the Regulations. The requirement is for PHWs on all tobacco packages, not just cigarettes. The size of the warnings will be rotated at least every 24 months and will be increased to 60% in June 2024.
Public health groups believe that the policy will not only dissuade prospective smokers especially the youth, but it will also give current smokers the opportunity to rethink of what they ingest and open pathways for quitting.
Akinbode Oluwafemi, the Executive Director of Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), speaking on the new policy stated that “the introduction of the Pictorial Health Warnings marks another milestone in Nigeria’s tobacco control journey”. He believes that by the policy, Nigeria will be reducing its number of its citizens who are lured into smoking through the beautiful packs hitherto (that have been) in the market.
Oluwafemi’s views are echoed by the Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance (NTCA) whose Project Officer, Chibuike Nwokorie, insists that the new Pictorial Health Warnings will dissuade kids and the uninformed from taking to smoking.
But with the benefit of hindsight, even with optimism in the air, it would be foolhardy on the part of the Federal Government to think there will not be some form of push-back from the tobacco industry. Already, there are unconfirmed reports that some tobacco companies in the country may have begun mass production of the old packs to saturate the market and thwart the policy. While the authenticity of the reports is left for the relevant agencies of government to verify, the time is now; for all hands must be on deck to ensure that attractive packs that lure our kids into smoking are a thing of the past.
It is therefore imperative that there must be synergy among government agencies that are expected to play crucial roles in carrying Nigerians along in compelling the tobacco industry to abide by the new rules. The National Orientation Agency (NOA) must work in close collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Health and the SON to create awareness about the new policy and the roles Nigerians must play in ensuring that tobacco products and manufacturers of products without the new health warnings are reported to the appropriate authorities.
Other agencies charged with enforcement of the policy such as the Federal Ministry of Health, the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), the Nigeria Police and the Nigeria Security and the Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC) must also work collaboratively with SON to carry out surveillance and monitoring exercises to ensure that tobacco companies effectively comply with the policy.
As Nigeria threads this new path in its tobacco control journey, it cannot afford to allow the tobacco merchants to thwart the policy. In this regard, collaboration among agencies is critical.
By James Eguaye in Warri