Akinbode Oluwafemi, Director at the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria speaks on the hazards and politics of tobacco companies in Nigeria among other critical issues.
The National Tobacco Control Act is already law but the implementation remains a challenge. Why?
I think it was three years ago that the National Tobacco Control Act became law in Nigeria and when you look at that law on its citation, it is meant to reduce the consumption of tobacco products in Nigeria and its attendant health hazard.
A report at a Third World Convention covering about 156 tobacco countries just came out recently. 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. But the unfortunate thing is that; globally between 2005 and now those regulations had caused about 2.5 decrease in smoking. When you look at the West Africa of which Nigeria has the largest population, smoking is still on the increase of about 2.4 percent. I think that is very instructive and of the fact that the non-implementation of this key measures particularly the National Tobacco Control Act have impacted greatly on the prevalence of smoking in the region.
So if you ask me, I will say that 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.
The law provides for the regulation and the minister (Health) is expected to take the regulation to the National Assembly but as at today those regulations have not been passed. So one can’t say enforcement has completely taken off. If you want to rate Nigerian government by that NTC Act, it has been very low. We know that a lot of efforts are going on within the ministry and some government agencies but we also know that there are huge challenges posed by tobacco companies which do not want effective law to take place in the country. That is the situation we currently find ourselves. But as CSOs, we will continue to challenge the government that government needs to do the needful by ensuring that the regulation is approved by the National Assembly and passed as well as effective enforcement of the law.
What are you doing to identify with lobby groups to assist your organisation persuade the government as well as all related agencies to speedy up approval on regulation?
We are doing all that. One of the things we did was to expand what we call the tobacco control community in Nigeria; so we are bringing in health professionals, religious leaders, and opinion leaders.
The other time we were at the palace of Ooni of Ife. We are bringing in traditional leaders to be part of this initiative which is aimed at preventing ill-health, and promoting healthy lifestyle. We are expanding the challenge to a bigger movement - a movement we call a Smoke-free Nigerian Movement. It is basically to promote smoke-free culture, among the youths, among the women and even among the policymakers themselves. That is essentially what we are doing on it to keep government on its toe. There is this N.Y Polls that shows that over 70 percent of Nigerians want tobacco culture policies and so this is a very welcomed policy that more and more Nigerians are embracing the crusade.
Do you see failure of leadership to rise up to the occasion?
I think there is a sense of purpose by current leadership at the Ministry of Health; but we are actually facing a monstrous corporation that will stop at nothing to ensure that effective tobacco laws are not passed. These corporations are richer than many countries in terms of resources; so they have capacity to spy on government and its agencies and try to undermine and frustrate moves to checkmate them. These are challenges that we are trying to surmount to get to our destination.
In one of your interviews you recommended that special taxes be levied on tobacco products. What can that do?
Taxation is one of the most effective measures for tobacco control because studies have shown that when you impose taxes government will make more revenue and you save more lives. It is one area government can get money to fund government projects, to tackle health challenges and at the same time saving lives. You need measures that will discourage the tobacco business and one of them is to let those corporations pay huge levy.
Don’t you think that most of the firms coming to do business in Nigeria are not properly scrutinized before allowing them start their operations? Do you have plans on how to checkmate it or ensure that there is due diligence?
It is very sad; and I think you know that tobacco companies came in at the weakest point of our national life; that was almost at the return of our democracy. And the government then was looking for all sorts of things; investments, to legitimize itself to be seen as a performing government. So one of the things they did then was to bring tobacco companies as if they have brought in good investors not knowing they actually signed off a lot of our sovereignties.
I think the environment now is changing and the capacity of the Civil Society now to serve as credible watchdog has actually been strengthened; but closely tied to that is the fact that we shouldn’t forget that power belongs to the people and we should make our government accountable. When government embarks on such projects that we know are going to harm our people we should rise up and voice out our position of condemnation. We have elected the people in office and we should make them serve us accountably and in a people-oriented manner. But having said that we also have that responsibility to also rise up as we are doing to bring any corporation, any individual that has flouted our laws, that has unduly benefitted from our land, that has polluted our environment, that has afflicted our people with diseases and death. We have that responsibility to bring them to justice and that is exactly what we are going to do. We are going to make tobacco companies accountable for all the infractions that they have committed in Nigeria. It’s just going to be one step at a time but we must certainly bring them to justice.
Do you think there has been improvement in the lives of the tobacco farmers going by your findings?
You see these companies go into our local communities and they trick them so to speak, enter into arrangement with the local farmers to sign papers they don’t understand, they give them inputs and at the end of the day they must pay back with tobacco leaves and even when you cannot produce the leaves they are carrying the debt over and over the years. We went to the tobacco farmers in Oyo State and what we found was shocking.
The farms remain a territory for modern slavery. The tobacco farmers are in a cycle of debt with the tobacco companies which treat them like slaves. They farm the crop, they take it to the collection centre and they come and dictate the price. The farmers are still exposed to all manner of risks as a result of chemicals that are used in tobacco farming. I can tell you that those tobacco farmers are used as slaves. When you go to the so called tobacco site you will see what it takes to even locate one tobacco farm. So you begin to ask yourself ‘where are the tobacco farms?’
The reality on ground is the same question we have been asking the government to unravel. How many acreage of tobacco farms are in Nigeria? How many tobacco farmers are in Nigeria? How much of tobacco leaves do Philip Morris, BAT import into their factories in Ibadan or Ilorin to produce the volumes that we have?
From my findings the tobacco leaves are not coming from our Nigerian farms alone. What we basically have in Nigeria are farmers that the tobacco companies are using for public relations and for their political agenda. And we are saying that the narrative must change.