BY ONYEANUNA ONYEDIKACHI
Akinbode Oluwafemi, deputy executive director of the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, against the backdrop of the celebration of this year’s World No Tobbaco Day.He spoke to ONYEANUNA ONYEDIKACHI on getting regulations in place for the enforcement of the National Tobacco Control Act (NTC Act), which he describes as Nigeria’s final push in the domestication of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), among other issues.
The National Tobacco Control Act was signed into law in 2015 but implementation is still in limbo. What is the reason behind this?
The National Tobacco Control Act became law in Nigeria in 2015 and the law itself aims to reduce the consumption of tobacco products in Nigeria and its attendant health hazards. The law however provides for regulations and implementing guidelines which the Ministry of Health is expected to produce and the Health minister is to take to the National Assembly for their nod. There were several issues that delayed it till now but we hear that the ministry is putting finishing touches on it to get it to the NASS. We hope that will happen soon then implementation will commence. It may interest you to know that some of the challenges that have delayed this process come from the tobacco companies that do not want any form of regulation to be in place in the country. On our part we have been encouraging the government to ensure that the regulation is approved by the National Assembly for effective enforcement of the law.
Would you say the Federal Ministry of Health is doing enough?
We have a minister who is determined to ensure Nigerians attain the highest standard of health. He is fully in support of a Smoke-free Nigeria and has been working very hard at it. However you must know that we are actually facing tobacco corporations that are monstrous and will stop at nothing to ensure that effective tobacco laws are not passed. These corporations are richer than many countries in terms of resources and have capacity to plant moles in government agencies to delay or rubbish the process. They will do everything to undermine and frustrate moves to checkmate them. These are challenges that the ministry is facing. But with the dexterity of the minister these hurdles will be surmounted.
Between 2005 when Nigeria ratified the FCTC and now, how would you assess the tobacco situation especially in Nigeria and Africa as a whole?
This is a very interesting question because a recent report on smoking prevalence by the WHO in 126 countries showed that between 2005 and date, while smoking decreased by 2.5 per cent in the so-called developed world, it increased by 2.4 per cent in West Africa where Nigeria falls. As you know, the largest tobacco market on the continent is Nigeria so we can conclude that a large chunk of those who embraced the smoking habit are here. The report looked at how the implementation of the key measures which include among others: ban of sponsorship, tobacco advertising and promotion, ban on smoking in public places, awareness situation and raising taxes, affected smoking rates. Such a report is very instructive and shows that non-implementation of these key measures have impacted negatively on the prevalence of smoking in Nigeria and the entire West African region. To narrow this down to our own reality, the implication is that lives are being lost because we know that tobacco smokers, according to health report, are likely to die of tobacco-related ailments.
In your view, are Nigerians determined to take their future in their hands to ensure tobacco companies are held accountable for the harms of their products?
I will proudly say that more Nigerians are getting aware of the dangers of tobacco and the need for regulations to check the excesses of the merchants of death that tobacco companies are. We are not a lone voice. We are expanding to the tobacco control community in Nigeria and bringing in health professionals, religious leaders, and opinion leaders.
Recently we were at the palace of Ooni of Ife who has thrown his weight behind our campaign for a smoke-free Nigeria. We are bringing other traditional leaders in to advocate healthy lifestyle among our people. The Smoke-free Nigerian Movement promotes a smoke-free culture among the youths, among the women and among our policymakers too. Recently the N.Y Polls showed that over 70 percent of Nigerians want tobacco control policies to check the drift to a culture of death which tobacco companies are promoting.
Recently, you recommended special taxes be levied on tobacco products. Can you elucidate further on this?
We are of the belief that taxation will play a vital role in checking the excesses of tobacco corporations on our shores. In case you do not know, the WHO through the FCTC has said that taxation is one of the most effective measures for tobacco control because studies have shown thus. When you impose taxes government will make more revenue and you save more lives. It is one area government can make more revenue to fund government projects, to tackle health challenges and at the same time save lives because the higher the cost of tobacco products the fewer people who will buy cigarettes. As a nation we need measures that will discourage the tobacco business and one of such measures is to let those corporations pay huge levy.
The tobacco companies operating in our country berthed here at the weakest point of our national life when the government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was seeking investments. Tobacco is however best described as mis-investment. The environment now is changing and it is our responsibility to rise up as we are doing now to make tobacco companies pay for their harms. Taxation is one of those ways.
What of the tobacco farmers? How can you get them to stop cultivating tobacco? How will they survive?
This is an area we are very concerned about. These tobacco companies go into our local communities and trick the farmers with promises of wealth to enter into slave agreements. The farmers sign papers they don’t understand and are given inputs to grow tobacco. At the end of the day they are compelled to pay back with tobacco leaves and even when you cannot produce the leaves they are carrying the debt over and over for years. It ends as a cycle of debt. We have visited several tobacco farms in Oyo State and what we found was sad and very disturbing. It is something the government must look into.
As I have said time and again, the farms remain a territory for modern slavery. The tobacco farmers farm the crop, take it to the collection centre where the tobacco coy they supply dictates the price. The farmers are still exposed to all manner of illnesses as a result of hazardous chemicals that are used in tobacco farming. I can tell you that those tobacco farmers are used as slaves. Aside that, you hardly see vast expanse of tobacco farms that justify the benefits the tobacco firms want from our government. The ministry of agriculture has a role to play here. Nigerians will be interested in knowing how many acreage of tobacco farms we have in this country and how many tobacco farmers exist. How much of tobacco leaves do Philip Morris and BAT import into their factories in Ibadan or Ilorin to produce the volumes of cigarettes that are manufactured here. We believe most of the tobacco leaves are not coming from Nigerian farms. The farmers here are only used for public relations to get government to grant the companies concessions etc.
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