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Yes to collaboration but not on tobacco

BATTwo un-coverings that dominated the news in 2015 have made it imperative for the different agencies of government to work together to check the excesses of tobacco companies operating in Nigeria.

First is the internationally-acclaimed report that British America Tobacco (BAT) bribed politicians and policymakers in Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda to whittle down legislation that would save lives.

The second, though on the local front, is Philip Morris International (PMI) planned illicit import of cigarettes into Nigeria from Senegal through a Nigerian subsidiary registered in December 2014.

PMI, the arch-rival of BAT for the huge Nigerian market, is accused of exploiting the ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme (ETLS) to freight 122 million units of cigarettes into Nigeria after getting what pblic health experts say are “questionable approvals” from some agencies of the Nigerian government, including Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and Federal Ministry of Finance in breach of the National Tobacco Control Act 2015 which stipulates that cigarette importers must seek the approval of the minister of health for such transactions.

While PMI continues to defend that deal, in some quarters there is strong belief that the transaction not only contravenes the National Tobacco Control Act which came into force in May 2015, but will also lead to a saturation of the country with lethal products that the World Health Organisation (WHO) blames for about six million deaths annually.

A major issue on the table is how the identified key agencies of government known for their seeming territorial control on other issues surprisingly worked together to ensure that Nigerians end up as victims of tobacco merchants. The speed with which the PMI subsidiary got registered and within five months received all the necessary approvals from these agencies to carry on with the cigarette imports is the crux of the matter.

In as much as there is unanimity that the responsible agencies of government remove unnecessary barriers and bureaucracies to smooth running of business and the affairs of government, it would have been expected that the said approvals pass through channels that would have detected that a key recommendation which the minister’s approval represents, may not have been adhered to in the import of the products.

The speed with which the company got the endorsements seemingly points to a cozy relationship that would not have been expected going by the nature of the product in contention and the all-too obvious fact that tobacco should be seriously regulated.

Throwback nearly a decade before, BAT is noted to have cozied to the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) which was given brand new Hilux Jeeps to allegedly combat cigarette smuggling. The company was at the same time engaging in a very intimate relationship with the Oyo State government to keep its operations in Iseyin, Ago-Are and other known tobacco-growing communities well-fertilised in the state.

Anti-tobacco groups have long felt the relationships above run contrary to the WHO-FCTC.

Nigeria signed the FCTC in 2004 and ratified it in 2005.
Article 5.3 of the WHO-FCTC states that, “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control. Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.”

Parties to the FCTC agree there is a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict” between tobacco industry interests and public health policy interests. Article 5.3 Guidelines, developed to support Parties in implementing the FCTC, elaborate on effective measures for addressing tobacco industry influence and interference in public health. These are minimum requirements and treaty parties are urged to enact measures beyond the guidelines, which apply to:

Officials, representatives, and employees of any government or semi/quasi-public institution or body responsible for, or that contributes or could contribute, to developing or implementing tobacco control policies, and to any persons acting on their behalf.”

While the National Tobacco Control Act 2015 recommends transparent interactions between the government and tobacco corporations on matters of regulation, our lawmakers must not lose sight of the fact that the WHO FCTC discourages unchecked interactions between tobacco companies and agencies of government because of their susceptibility to opening doors for breaches in legislation.

It is in the light of the above that there is also growing pessimism about the inclusion of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) which BAT belongs to, in the National Tobacco Control Committee (NATOCC) which will advise the Health minister on policies that will make the Tobacco Act effective.

Most Nigerians will affirm that government agencies must talk and work collaboratively; most will support removal of clogs to businesses doing business. But it will certainly be a resounding NO if such close collaborations are at the instance of the tobacco industry.

Jumoke Johnson wrote from Minna

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