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OPINION

Tobacco Control: Before SDGs Go The Way Of MDGs

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The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) conceived in 2015 by leaders from 193 countries including Nigeria seeks a clearer path of ridding the world of poverty, hunger, and the catastrophic effects of climate change. Its trajectory differs from that of the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which most nations of the global South criticize for being overly ambitious due to the shortness of time penciled for its realization. The MDG target of 2015 to have the population exposed to poverty was largely not met by African nations.

Learning from the shortcomings of the MDGs, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) set a 2030 projection for nations of the world to achieve the 17 targets of the SDG which require the partnership of all sectors including governments, civil society and citizens alike to bring about a better planet for present and future generations.

Goal 3 of the SDG which seeks to promote healthy life and wellbeing for people of all ages focuses on eradicating a wide range of diseases and addresses many different persistent and emerging health issues.

Though many threats to achieving this target are identified, tobacco stands out as the singular most insidious. Statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) on tobacco deaths put the figure at six million plus annually with most of the deaths occurring in low and middle income countries like Nigeria. That figure is projected to rise to 8 million annually by the year 2030 which ironically is the target year of attaining the goals of the SDGs for all earthlings.

Because of the disease and financial burden of tobacco, the implementation of the WHO –Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC)  was adopted as one of the targets under SDG 3.

The FCTC is the first public health treaty negotiated under the auspices of the WHO. It was signed by 168 of the 192 WHO member states and more than 180 WHO member states have become parties to the convention. The FCTC provides an internationally coordinated response to combating the tobacco epidemic, and sets out specific steps for governments addressing tobacco use to take.

Tobacco use is known to have adverse impact on health, poverty, malnutrition, education and the environment which are all critical aspects of the SDGs. Tobacco is a causative factor, and exacerbates cancer, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes among other known illnesses that lead to deaths of people in their productive years. Monies for tobacco treatment deny essentials such as food and education their place in poor families. Reducing tobacco use has therefore been identified as key in reaching the SDG targets.

A host of nations across the world are known to have progressively upped taxes on tobacco to fund development. Unfortunately, Nigeria is among the few shortchanging themselves due to cheap tobacco prices that they permit. Totobacco readily available, it is equally very affordable for the poor and vulnerable youths. Countries that lead in tobacco taxes are Bosnia and Herzegovina (86.0%), Isreal (85.0%), Slovakia (84.6%), Bulgaria (84.0%) and Poland (82.6%). Others in that category are Estonia, Finland and Greece.

The remarkable successes of these nations in tobacco control have helped them drive down smoking rates. It has equally justified the WHO position that significant increase in tobacco taxes can save lives, reduce poverty, and open up a channel for financing development. Tobacco Control can also benefit from tobacco taxes since the National Tobacco Control Act 2015 also has a provision for a Tobacco Control Fund to be set up.

These notwithstanding, companies like British America Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) and Philip Morris are currently in the fore of the unrelenting grip on Nigeria because of its weak laws, the political influence they wield on the government and so-called Corporate Social Responsibility activities that portray them as socially responsible and stakeholders in the Nigerian project.

Sadly, along all the chain from tobacco growing, to manufacturing and consumption Nigeria loses.

In the tobacco farms, kids who ought to be in school usually skip school to assist their aged parents in tobacco growing. Others drop out of school when their parents die from illnesses linked to tobacco growing or smoking.

In the manufacturing chain, many tobacco factory workers have also complained of poor work conditions that predisposed them to debilitating illnesses. Ex- workers of BATN $150 million tobacco manufacturing plant in Ibadan recently claimed they were disengaged due to illnesses caused by poor factory conditions and constant exposure to tobacco dust. While some are still alive battling the ailments at huge health costs, some are believed to have passed away in pitiable conditions.

In virtually all the cases, the health burden fell on their families.

These developments have not debarred tobacco companies in the country from deploying newer tactics to woo the youths into smoking to replace a dying older generation of smokers. A recent report by the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) and the Ibadan-based Nigeria Tobacco Control Research Group (NTCRG) exposed how the tobacco companies in Nigeria deliberately sited their Point of Sale (POS) near schools. In kiosks near the schools, candies are sold side by side cigarettes of all brands, many flavored to attract the kids.

These examples mirror the wider challenge that tobacco poses to the attainment of the SDG 3 goals.

Can Anything Be Done?

Public health experts insist that the federal government’s recent increase in tobacco tax and excise is commendable but does not go far enough because it falls short of the WHO recommended 75% excise tax burden on tobacco products which would elicit reduced tobacco use among the poor and vulnerable.

The new policy which came into effect 4th June 2018 maintains a 20 percent ad valorem-based excise duty rate on tobacco products, and introduces an additional N1 specific tax on each stick of cigarette in 2018, which would increase the price per stick to N2 in 2019 and eventually N2.90 per stick in 2020. This corresponds to a gradual increase in excise duty rate of N58 per pack, spread over three years. In totality, Nigeria’s excise tax burden is only 17 percent.

But for far-reaching impacts to be achieved, incorporating tobacco control in the Sustainable Development priorities of states and the federal government is one way to go. Beyond the increased excise on tobacco, more far-reaching taxes should also be introduced and levied on tobacco products until Nigeria reaches the threshold which is the WHO recommendation of 75 percent tax burden on tobacco firms. Aside the health benefits, Nigeria stands to gain in terms of increased revenue which equally translates to enough funds for sustainable development priorities and tobacco control.

Some low hanging fruits to attain this swiftly include fast-track of passage of regulations for enforcement of the NTC Act, 2015 which is becoming an embarrassment to the nation in the committee of nations that have domesticated the WHO- FCTC and begun enforcement.

Another low hanging fruit is the necessity concluding the bureaucratic processes that would enable the country reap from the fruits of the ratification of the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit trade in Tobacco. Until these are in place, the SDGs targets may go the way of the MDGs goals that we failed to achieve. Clearly, the ball is in our court.

–Adamu wrote in from Kano


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