Yes, Senate On Point With Tobacco Resolution
The weight that the Senate has thrown behind demands for a ban on tobacco product sales around schools has come at a very auspicious time. In fact, it is coming at a time in our history when the major players in the tobacco business have succeeded in inducing a very sizeable population of our kids into smoking with their sights set on getting more to begin the toxic journey that ends in life-long addiction and ultimately death. All this has happened within the last ten years when Nigeria as a nation was dilly-dallying on whether or not to apply the global standard on regulating the tobacco business within our shores. The result of the lecherous interest in our kids is the Big Tobacco Tiny Targets Nigeria Report findings which Senator Remi Tinubu and her fellow lawmakers relied on to push for February 6, 2017, Resolution urging the Federal Ministries of Health, Education and Information to harmonize efforts at banning the advertisement and sales of tobacco around all schools in Nigeria.
The survey, which was carried out by the Nigeria Tobacco Control Research Group (NTCRG) and the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) documented how tobacco products are sold at very close proximity to schools. In Nassarawa, Kaduna, Enugu, Oyo and Lagos where the research was conducted, all kinds of cigarettes, including flavoured ones were observed being sold side-by-side candies and biscuits that kids procure. In that process, most are enticed to try the deadly products. Senator Tinubu, had while advocating for concrete actions to stave off imminent tobacco epidemic in the country expressed worries that there is a deliberate ploy by tobacco companies to position tobacco products, tobacco adverts and signs within 100m perimeter of schools to stimulate the interest of children and youth in the use of tobacco products. The resolution requested the ministry of health and other relevant enforcement agencies to work on a framework for the monitoring of the implementation of the ban on single sticks and cigarette packs with less than 20 sticks as detailed in the National Tobacco Control (NTC) Act, 2015.
While the lawmaker’s actions have drawn commendation from among public health experts, it is still not the time to celebrate. Experience has shown that the tobacco corporations always have plans B, C, D and even more when the euphoria that greets pronouncements on life –saving laws die down. Lessons from the thorny path that the NTC Act passed before becoming law shows that the tobacco industry will always fight back, albeit, in a more clandestine manner. Aside time-wasting litigation, one of the ways the industry has derailed or slowed implementation of tobacco control laws is to ingratiate with government agencies responsible for enforcing life-saving policies. It is no longer news that after the May 2015 presidential signature on Nigeria’s NTC Act, tobacco industry executives and their front groups have been crawling all over government agencies to secure alternate interpretations of the law. It is of utmost importance that ample education for government agencies targeted at enforcing the law begins. The education should particularly highlight the dangers of public officials interacting with the tobacco industry. In doing this, there is need for recourse to Article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC) which reminds Parties to the Treaty, of which Nigeria is one, that tobacco industry is not a stakeholder and should not be given a seat on the table when tobacco control regulation is discussed. It also warns that tobacco industry interference poses the single greatest threat to tobacco control efforts as tobacco transnationals have used their political influence to water down or defeat tobacco control legislation in countries around the globe. Governments are advised to avoid interactions with the tobacco industry and set strict rules of engagement for any meetings deemed necessary.
Worrying as these warnings are, they should only encourage the Nigerian Senate to stay on course in its recommendations that the Federal Ministry of Health begins immediate enforcement of the nine key provisions of the Act announced by the Health Minister, Professor Isaac Adewole on the occasion of the World No Tobacco Day 2017. The provisions include a ban on smoking in public places, prohibition of the sale of cigarettes to and by persons aged 18 years and below, ban on the sale of cigarettes in single sticks, and a ban on tobacco advertising promotion and sponsorships, among others. The gravity of the findings noted by Senator Tinubu should also ginger her to work with other lawmakers to give their nod to regulations for full implementation of the Act which has been in the cooler since 2015. Nothing could be more perilous than waiting for a full-blown tobacco epidemic before we act. Time is not on our side.