POLICY :Nigeria Scores Big on fight against Tobacco

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By Remi Adebayo

NIGERIA’S long battle to limit use of tobacco in Africa’s most populous nation, which has resulted in needless deaths is gaining ground.

This comes after the country’s Parliament recently approved to implement regulations stated in the National Tobacco Control Act (NTCA) 2015, a move considered to be a parting public health gift by the eighth National Assembly.

The endorsement of the regulation now moves Nigeria ahead in the fight against tobacco products’ use, especially among minors, if enforced.

The NTCA 2015 was signed into law by former president Goodluck Jonathan but implementation was stuck due to a provision that required compulsory parliamentary approval before it could be fully enforced.

A lot of advocacy and pressure took place to push for a parliamentary nod in order to reduce the number of smokers and the accompanying deaths but more importantly stop under aged Nigerians from accessing the hazardous product.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) more than eight million lives are lost globally each year from tobacco use, of which more than seven million are direct users while the remaining 1.2 million victims are non-smokers exposed to second hand smoking.

In Nigeria, statistics show that more than 5.6 million adults and 25 000 children use tobacco each day, accounting for the deaths of about 16 100 citizens annually.

Sadly, tobacco is not illegal in many nations although it has been proven to be one of the biggest health threats faced in the world.

No wonder, environmentalists and public health advocates have risked everything, including threats to their lives from notable tobacco companies, to continue pushing for control of tobacco and possibly discourage usage.

Deputy Executive Director in the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Akinbode Oluwafemi lamented that weak regulations hindered smooth implementation of the tobacco laws despite the presence of the NTCA.

“Tobacco related deaths are needless and avoidable but continue occurring because the tobacco industry exploits the partial implementation of the NTCA to unleash more lethal and innovative products into the Nigerian market. Their products entice young children and conscript them into smoking for life,” he said.

The environmentalist said time has been due for Parliament to approve the regulatory document and was optimistic Nigeria’s Senate would also follow suit and complement these efforts.

Oluwafem said as a signatory to WHO’s Framework Convention, Nigeria required strong regulations,  recommending that the country moves to speedy approve and implement the NTCA regulations.

Environmentalists concurred that by doing so, the Parliament was safeguarding the economy, life, safety and health of every Nigerian.

Similarly, Hilda Ochefu, Sub-Regional Coordinator from West Africa of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, believed that the full implementation of the law would reduce access to tobacco products by children and prevent unnecessary deaths of both primary and secondary smokers.

“When children have access to tobacco products, they are likely to smoke them because most youths are introduced to smoking before the age of 10,” she said.

Ebiuwa Uwagboe, a campaign specialist working with Gatefield, disclosed worrisome figures that the reported 25 000 Nigerian children exposed to daily use of tobacco products consist of minors between the age 10 to 14.

This indicates that an average of 17 children indulge in smoking every minute in Nigeria.

Her words: “Children must be protected as they lack capacity and are often unwittingly targets of the tobacco industry.”

Just before the Senate could finally agree to the regulations, 48 civil rights group, sponsored by the Africa Tobacco Control Civil Society Organisations demanded that the lawmakers fully adopt strong Tobacco Control Regulations to protect future generations from dire health and socio-economic consequences of tobacco use.

The activists, in their petition, said the adoption of the regulations was critical for effective implementation of the NTCA and provide Nigeria a unique opportunity to align with the requirements of WHO guidelines on tobacco control.

This action, they said would demonstrate Nigeria’s global leadership in tobacco control and fulfil pending laws set in 2005 that paved way to control the growing epidemic of tobacco use.

The matter attracted widespread attention and became a big issue involving the Africa Tobacco Control Alliance, Africa Centre for Tobacco Industry Monitoring and Policy Research, ERA/FoEN; Framework Convention Alliance and Observatoire du tabac en Afrique Francophone.

Others groups such as the Vision for Alternative Development, Health Healing Network in Burundi, Coalition Camerounaise Contre le Tabac, Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance, Consumer Information Network, Mozambique Public Health Association, among others, also showed concern and desire to witness a new era that spearheaded stronger tobacco implementations in Nigeria.

When the NTCA was finally approved, there was elation from all corners and praised the Nigerian lawmakers for not failing the nation.

A joint statement issued by the Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance and the ERA/FoEN described the move as a parting gift that would fully operationalise the NTCA safeguard current and future generation of Nigerians from tobacco harms.

Under the NTCA, licensing of tobacco products, duration of the license, sizes of pictographs and graphic health warnings on tobacco packs can now be addressed.

It was noted that tobacco companies deliberately position tobacco products, adverts and signs close to school perimetres, within 100 metres, to stimulate children’s interests.

The ministries of health, education and information are now urged to make sure they prioritise banning of advertisements and sales of tobacco within the aforementioned distance of all schools in Nigeria, in compliance with the law.

Working with other relevant enforcement agencies, these ministries are supposed to make sure they embark on a drive to ban the advertising, promotion, sponsorship, selling of tobacco products away from schools.

The NTCA regulatory development also called a ban on single sticks and cigarette packs with less than 20 sticks.

National Coordinator of the Nigeria Tobacco Research Group, Akindele Adebiyi, commended the move as a giant step towards protecting children from the deliberate marketing tactics of the tobacco companies.

He pleaded with relevant agencies to put necessary mechanisms in place to guarantee immediate attention and enforcement.

Coordinator of Nigerian Tobacco Control Alliance, Oluseun Esan, also hailed the NTCA approval as a step in the right direction.

He hoped authorities would collaborate to implement and monitor the NTCA in order to prevent the reversal of the gains.

Some tobacco smokers interviewed by Montage Africa concurred controlling exposure to cigarettes was a worthy cause.

“The law will do more to safeguard those who are not yet hooked while those already addicted will go the extra mile to access the products even at higher costs,” said one respondent.

One Ahmed believed the regulation would make him reduce number of packs he smoked on a daily basis.