Activist accuses tobacco industry of ‘aggressive attempt’ to derail anti-smoking law

The deputy director of the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, Akinbode Oluwafemi, has accused the tobacco industry of laying the groundwork to a major subversion of the country’s tobacco control policies.

Speaking at a press conference in Abuja on Thursday, Mr. Oluwafemi said the industry had been coercing government officials to advocate on their behalf, interfering in policy making through trade committees and third parties, and aggressively lobbying and bribing policy makers.

“As we speak today, there is an aggressive attempt to derail the implementation of the National Tobacco Control Act which was signed into law by former president Goodluck Jonathan in 2015 and now nearing implementation as the Ministry of Health fashions regulations for its implementation.”

Mr. Oluwafemi said the first attempt to thwart the tobacco control policy was a public notice by the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis, IPPA, – an organization he described as a tobacco industry front group – casting doubts on the integrity of members of the National Tobacco Control Committee, NATOCC.

“The role of the NATOCC which boasts credible individuals determined to ensure Nigeria implements the tobacco law to the last detail is advisory.

“Having found its membership untainted, the tobacco industry tried to sell the public a dummy by insinuating that the NATOCC members were funded agents of international donor agencies and NGOs.”

The IPPA had placed an advertorial in a national newspaper on October 6th last year titled ‘SOS: Save National Tobacco Control Committee from Subversive Elements’ questioning the integrity of the NATOCC members.

The Health Minister, Isaac Adewole, had responded swiftly to the claims saying his ministry had the constitutional authority to collaborate with both local and international partners to advance the country’s public health initiative.

Thompson Ayodele, IPPA’s Executive Director, told PREMIUM TIMES there was nothing wrong with taking a position different from that of anti-tobacco groups.

“If they think their position is the only valid position, then they are mistaken,” Mr. Ayodele said in a phone interview on Thursday night.

“If they keep on antagonizing any group opposing them and associating them with the tobacco industry, then you should ask them what is their own interest? Who is funding them?

“These groups want tobacco banned and we have always advocated that banning tobacco is not the solution. Have they noticed any market where tobacco is banned?”

‘Tobacco industry at it again’

At Thursday’s press conference, Mr. Oluwafemi said following the health minister’s vote of confidence on members of the NATOCC, the tobacco industry had begun other moves to undermine the government’s policy.

“We have learnt of a very suspicious Bill to amend the National Tobacco Control Act 2015 sponsored by Honourable Dickson Tarkighir representing Makurdi/Guma federal constituency in the Federal House of Representatives,” said Mr. Oluwafemi.

“Among others, the Bill seeks to vest the implementation of the NTC Act with the National Agency for Food, Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and as anticipated, has the full support of the tobacco industry.”

Mr. Oluwafemi said the latest moves did not come as a surprise because in the run up to the passage of the tobacco law in 2015, the tobacco industry stopped at nothing to upturn efforts already put in place at the time.

“The suspicious Bill removes all powers of the Minister of Health and vests same with the Director General of the National Agency for Foods, Drug Administration and Control, putting tobacco control absolutely under NAFDAC.

“It also vests full administration of the NTC Act in the NAFDAC. Dubiously, the new bill deleted Sections 2, 3, 4, and 6 of the NTC Act, which established the NATOCC and seeks to create a National Tobacco Control Directorate under NAFDAC.”

Mr. Oluwafemi further accused the tobacco industry of planting moles in government ministries that are involved in tobacco control policy.

“It may interest you to know that we learnt of the recent leak of a confidential document relating to the implementing guidelines and regulations for the NTC Act at the Ministry of Justice.

“This alleged breach in form of the smuggling of a supposed confidential document to one of the leading tobacco corporations in the country, is a sad reminder that an official from the same ministry who was on the delegation of the Nigerian government to the Seventh Session of the Conference of Parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in November 2016 advanced tobacco industry-laced arguments that shocked the world at the talks.”

Mr. Oluwafemi called on the Nigerian government to identify those behind the leaks at the Justice Ministry as well as put a mechanism in place to insulate tobacco policies from tobacco industry interference.

“As we have said time and again, delay in the full implementation of the NTC Act will be exploited by the tobacco industry to begin a new onslaught on our nation and particularly our youth. The Nigerian government must be wary of the tobacco industry.”

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