Matters arising from Anti-Tobacco Campaign, By Akinyemi Williams

Cigarette smoking
A tobacco smoker used to illustrate the story.

The effort against tobacco should be revised and made more effective

What could possibly pass for the takeoff of Anti-Tobacco Campaign can be said to have started in 1632 when it became illegal to smoke publicly in Massachusetts. But this had to do more with the moral beliefs of the time and not the health concerns.

However, in the 1950s, more and more claims linking smoking to lung cancer began to emerge. In 1965, television cigarette ads were taken off the air in Great Britain. In 1971, television ads for cigarettes were finally taken off the air in the United States. Anti-Tobacco campaign and their activities grew over the years and assumed a global height in the late 1990s.

This has led to countries adopting strict measures to curtail smoking and tobacco use. The reasons for this are few, but the most touted appears to be public health. Canada, Australia and South Africa are among the countries that have latched on to the bandwagon. The state of New York is also known to be pondering the idea of further regulating smoking. Governor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, is one of the funders of the Anti-Smoking Campaign groups.

There is an inherent danger that the global drive to eliminate tobacco use and manufacture will take on the same outlook that the drive to eliminate poverty took in developing countries. The attempt to eliminate poverty through the use of aid granted many countries in Africa did not achieve its intended objectives. In recent years, multilateral agencies and others have changed their strategies, believing more in socio-economic growth or poverty reduction enabled by either foreign or local investment.

As funding for tobacco control increases, so also have the organizations involved in the race to address tobacco related issues. The demand for smoking has persisted despite the increase in funding and tobacco control advocacy, and in many situations and countries where stringent regulation have been enacted, smuggling of tobacco by criminals and terrorists has also increased tremendously, leading to loss of revenue by the government with no protection for public health. Australia, Canada and South Africa are ready references.

In Nigeria, Anti-Tobacco Campaign groups have established themselves. In fact, they have revved up their activities in recent time so much that they have three Anti-Tobacco Bills sitting with different arms of government. While one sits with the Lagos State House of Assembly, another is currently with the Federal House of Representatives and the third is an executive bill championed by the Federal Ministry of Health.

The bill seeks to ban smoking in public places and forbids persons under the age of 18 from selling and buying tobacco products. The proposed law, which would amend the 1990 Tobacco Control Laws of Nigeria, also forbids communication between the manufacturers and consumers.

Drawing from the Canada misadventure with tobacco regulation, many, this writer inclusive, fear the security implications of allowing the illegal trading in tobacco to return.

Analyzing Tobacco control

It is imperative that the debate on social costs and benefits of smoking be assessed based on empirical economic evidence in our quest to identify the appropriate mechanism for controlling tobacco (if there really is the need to), as the war on tobacco companies has not yielded any meaningful results in countries currently under stringent control.

For laws to be properly drafted all issues must be considered and all stakeholders heard. Developed countries are domesticating the FCTC articles not only through inclusive strategies but also in the context of their operating environment. An earlier move by the UK health department to introduce plain packaging in the UK was aborted after extensive deliberations with all stakeholders, including the tobacco industry, simply because such a move would have other unintended consequences such as increased smuggling among others.

While industry practices must be monitored, there are benefits associated with the existence of tobacco companies. The reality is that it is the tobacco companies, and not the tobacco control advocates, who have over the years assisted the country in reducing smuggling, replacing counterfeit tobacco products with products that several regulatory agencies can now monitor and regulate.

Globally, huge sums of money have been pumped into tobacco control advocacy over the last few decades by philanthropists and many others. However, the demand for tobacco consumption persists and illegal markets continue to thrive. As the advocates continue to focus their energies on the tobacco industry, so do the criminals, smugglers and illegal marketers continue to smile to the bank, to the detriment of public health which the Anti-Tobacco groups claims to be protecting.

On one hand, tobacco control advocates report that the incidence of smoking in some of countries has declined, while on the other hand the media and enforcement agencies continue to report increased cases of smuggling. Tobacco smuggling is often linked to the funding of terrorism and other criminal activities. Countries like Canada, Ireland and even New York, USA are some of those affected. A CNN online report of 17th May 2013 stated that “A cigarette smuggling scheme that cost New York State millions of dollars in sales tax revenue may have raised funds for militant groups…”

The reality is that the strategies deployed by tobacco control advocates are attempting to push the legitimate businesses out of the picture yet these same strategies are consequently fueling the entry of smugglers into the scene.

In the case of Nigeria, what needs to be considered is how we are going to tackle the issue of smuggled tobacco products when the legitimate tobacco businesses have been driven out. Can the problem of smoking be solved through the current strategies without proffering alternative approaches? Definitely not! Millions of people will still smoke, law or no law.

The advocates must ensure that the confusion and distraction that has arisen recently must not divert all concerned from the simple logic, which is to protect people on the street who have chosen to smoke irrespective of the associated harm. For this to happen, their focus and strategy must change and the existing funds received must be devoted to less complex areas which will achieve the results. If the legislators or government are pushed into drafting a bad tobacco law, they will invariably make matters worse.

This is the bitter truth for whoever cherishes it.

Akinyemi Williams writes in from Lagos.


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