A case for prudent regulation of the tobacco industry
The Nigerian Tobacco Control Act (NTCA) generated considerable interest among contending parties before its enactment on the 28th of May 2015, following its passage earlier by the National Assembly. The law regulates the sale, manufacture, advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products in Nigeria.
In many parts of the world, governments are increasingly inclined towards stringent tobacco control legislation in line with a laid down framework by the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). In so doing, governments recognize that many issues are in contention – specifically, balancing the public health concerns and the economic contribution of the tobacco industry as tobacco is a legal product across the world.
In the proceedings leading to the enactment of the NTCA, two major contenders were prominent. On one hand, the anti-tobacco campaigners who argued that there should be no consultation with the tobacco industry in view of article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC which advocates that tobacco control policies should be protected from the commercial interest of the tobacco industry. The tobacco manufacturers’ position, on the other hand, was that as key stakeholders in the tobacco industry their views on the potential consequences of the proposed laws should be considered, as laws made on biases would always be detrimental to the proposed public health objectives in the long-term.
Commendably, the approach adopted by the two legislative houses in the National Assembly was that of inclusion demonstrating a duty of fairness – that is, engaging all stakeholders and availing them an opportunity to proffer their views with respect to the draft tobacco control bill before its passage into law.
More importantly, the then leadership of the National Assembly also made attempts to clarify issues by stating, categorically, that the effort at developing tobacco control legislation was not intended to ban tobacco products in Nigeria but to regulate the activities of the tobacco manufacturers and traders taking into consideration the public concerns of the health risks associated with the consumption of tobacco products.
Tobacco control is indeed a complex and controversial subject. There is a misconception that all it takes to achieve a drastic reduction in smoking is to regulate the tobacco industry out of existence.
For example, there is a school of thought which recommends effective tobacco control through tax measures. However, these tax measures fail to take into consideration the direct relationship between extremely high taxes and increase in tobacco smuggling and counterfeiting which will negatively impact the set public health objectives as taxes only increase the price of tobacco products sold through the legal channels. The one-size-fits-all approach has proven to be detrimental to achieving the set of public health objectives if the peculiarities of the local economy are not taken into consideration.
Another key regulatory approach has been to implement harsh regulatory restrictions on the tobacco operators which imposes unnecessary financial burden and process complexities on the legal manufactures. It is a known fact that tobacco control elicits varied interests. However, it is reasonable for all advocates on both sides to take a holistic approach, considering the long-term effect of tobacco control in Nigeria – specifically, the public health objectives and the socio-economic contribution of the tobacco industry which are both very important.
The public health objectives should remain paramount as the health of a nation is the strength of the economy. Though tobacco is a legal product, its consumption is associated with the related health risks. The tobacco control framework should not only be focused on tobacco laws that implement visible health warning on retail tobacco packaging, harsh tax measures, restrictions on tobacco constituents and components, ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorships, which are targeted at the legal tobacco industry operators, but also on strong advocacy from the public health institutions to address the demand for tobacco products through the advancement of science.
A key question remains necessary to be answered by the anti-tobacco communities and the government on why tobacco regulations are mainly focused on the supply chain of the tobacco industry and aggressive measures are not taken to ensure smokers quit or safe alternatives to the conventional cigarettes are made available to reduce the prominent risk from smoking. There have been researches all over the world on safe alternatives to conventional cigarettes and the advancement of science, which demonstrates that there are products with lesser risks than conventional cigarettes. If the objective of tobacco control regulations is to reduce the harm from tobacco smoking, then the consideration of advanced science on less risky options should be encouraged.
Nigeria should take a cue from how tobacco control has evolved internationally – especially, in Canada, the United States of America and the United Kingdom where the regulatory approach for tobacco control is more progressive – by providing safe alternative or less risky options to reduce the highlighted harm from tobacco use.
Unfortunately, the WHO FCTC regulatory approach, which encourages the imposition of stringent laws on the legal players in the industry, as being implemented across the world, has inadvertently created more activities in the black market. The government should implement smoking cessation programmes which should be accessible at the minimum in primary health care centres. For example, nicotine therapies should be made available to persons who want to quit smoking to address the concerns of nicotine addiction as one of the key concerns on the harm caused by cigarettes is the combustion from tobacco smoking.
The government needs to be open to the implementation of a comprehensive tobacco control framework which will take into cognisance reasonable laws that will regulate the activities of the tobacco industry without imposing unnecessary hardships on the tobacco businesses which contribute enormously to the Nigerian economy. Notwithstanding, as the health of the populace remains paramount, a more progressive tobacco control approach should be adopted which is primarily aimed at addressing the health concerns and the harm associated with the consumption of tobacco products. Also, it should ensure that tobacco control is not limited to tobacco control laws but should include smoking cessation programmes and opportunities for safer alternatives to be available.
It is believed that if there is proper enlightenment on the detrimental effect of smoking and safer alternatives to conventional cigarettes are made available, then this will be a major achievement for tobacco control in Nigeria as the demand for conventional cigarettes will reduce over time with little or no regulatory effort required. Tobacco control will remain a cherished aspiration in Nigeria until a progressive regulatory approach is adopted.