28 June 2017

Nigeria: A Case for the Tobacco Legislation

opinion

Some weeks ago, the issue of tobacco control came to the fore again on World No Tobacco Day (WNTD), which was observed on May 31, 2017. The consensus among various stakeholders at the various activities lined up across the federation to mark the day was that government should immediately set in motion processes and expedite mechanisms that will ensure effective implementation of the law. Stakeholders also lamented that the delay in the implementation of the National Tobacco Control Act (NTCA) 2015 was inimical to national development.

This agitation when viewed against the backdrop of the message displayed in a mighty signage which emerged at the entrance of the National Assembly complex, days before the WNTD 2017, would pique the curiosity of any close observer of the tobacco industry. The message which was addressed to the National Assembly: "Dear National Assembly, Stand up and Speak for Strong Tobacco Regulations, Prevent Millions of Tobacco-induced Deaths" was sponsored by a coalition of anti-tobacco groups in Nigeria.

To the uninformed, the impression this message gives is either that a national tobacco legislation is yet to be enacted, or that the regulation has not been reviewed by the National Assembly. Perhaps, the sponsors of the signage do not find fulfillment in the NTCA.

For the purpose of clarity, it is necessary to state that there is an extant tobacco legislation known as the NTCA 2015, which was enacted in the twilight of the Goodluck Jonathan administration.

The process leading to the enactment of the law, though tough and tortuous, was adjudged fair by all stakeholders. At the public hearings held by the National Assembly on the bill, submissions were made by various stakeholders, including regulators, several interest groups, lobbyists, government agencies, the tobacco industry, farmers' groups, as well as several other people with one interest or the other in the tobacco industry.

The fact that the NTCA 2015, as it stands, is not a win-win for any stakeholder, perhaps save for those pursuing vested interests, is a huge credit to the legislators for delivering a largely balanced law. Also noteworthy is the fact that the legislation conforms to the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which Nigeria is a signatory to.

So, it would amount to a waste of valuable resources and time to call for the passage of another tobacco regulation, or ask for input to regulations to support existing legislation when it has not been sent to the National Assembly. Therefore, it is valid to say that there is no justification for the call for the passage of a new tobacco regulation or the subversion of the extant one as is being clamoured by some anti-tobacco coalitions.

The desire by the anti-tobacco groups to protect Nigerians from the health hazards of tobacco consumption, which ignited their zeal to join forces with global health agencies to influence government's policies and decisions to regulate smoking and other matters related to tobacco manufacturing and sale, is understandable. This sentiment is shared by many Nigerians of goodwill who are conscious of the health consequences of smoking. However, it is only reasonable for the anti-tobacco lobby to allow government and the relevant regulatory agencies to do their bit in implementing the NTCA 2015 without let or hindrance or subtle blackmail. Their unbridled zealousness will only serve to erode all the gains made so far in crafting a national tobacco legislation, which took about a decade in the making. It is worthy of note here that efforts at enacting the law in the past suffered some setbacks several times before the present one, which repealed the Tobacco Smoking Control Act, 2004, was signed into law on May 27, 2015.

Interestingly, the then President and members of the seventh National Assembly were commended by a coalition of tobacco control advocates comprising the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Campaign For Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK), the Nigeria Tobacco Control Coalition (NTCC), and the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), for accelerating the enactment of the law.

Furthermore, the desperation and aggression with which these groups have been agitating leaves no one in doubt that there is more than a passing interest in their activism. It is recalled that shortly after the inauguration of the National Tobacco Control Committee (NATOCC) by the Health Minister, Professor Isaac Adewole, last year, the anti-tobacco lobby was alleged to have attempted to unethically manipulate the committee members to have some of their recommendations and clauses, which were rejected at the public hearings, secretly inserted into the provisions for regulations of the NTCA.

If these allegations are true, then it bears asking that in whose interest are these anti-tobacco NGOs working? Their unethical approach to anti-tobacco activism often tempts one to ask if they truly get their funding from foreign countries as being alleged in some quarters and are therefore doing their bidding. It is quite curious that while others are calling for the implementation of the NTCA they are singing a different tune.

The onus is on them to convince Nigerians that they are not motivated by pecuniary gains and guided by the agendas of foreign donors.

Elujoba wrote from Centre for Promotion of Enterprise and Business Best Practices

Nigeria

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