“Big Tobacco has for decades used corporate social responsibility to build relationships with policymakers…”
As time ticks for the seventh session of Nigeria’s National Assembly, the country faces a critical moment. Once again, Nigeria is on the brink of passing the National Tobacco Control Bill: a groundbreaking measure that could save the lives of millions of Nigerian youth over the coming decades from tobacco-related disease and death.
The bill, currently awaiting passage by Parliament, contains critical provisions including smoke-free public spaces, graphic health warnings and a ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. But through a misinformation campaign promoted in the media in the last few months, British American Tobacco (BAT), controller of the largest share of Nigeria’s tobacco market – is working to stall passage of the bill. By trying to curry favour with lawmakers and the public through sponsored articles containing half-truths, BAT is again attempting to sway public opinion in its favour and derail this lifesaving law – just as it did in 2009 with an elaborate PR campaign that effectively put the bill to bed.
Nigeria once again has the opportunity to stand up to Big Tobacco and make sure that corporate interests don’t trump the health of its people. It’s time for Nigerian policymakers to re-evaluate their priorities. Do they want to associate themselves with an industry that lies to the public and promotes a product that kills? If Nigerian policymakers are truly committed to saving lives and representing the interests of the public, they must not only reject partnerships with BAT but must also advocate for the swift passage of Nigeria’s National Tobacco Control Bill.
The tobacco industry is fuelling the most deadly epidemic on the planet – causing nearly six million deaths each year. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Africa, which, as the American Cancer Society recently reported, may become the future epicentre of a tobacco epidemic. As Big Tobacco aggressively markets its deadly products in the region, the report estimates that adult smokers in Africa will soar to 572 million by 2100 – up from 77 million today – unless we act now to rein in smoking rates.
The solution is clear. If passed, Nigeria’s National Tobacco Control Bill would protect millions of Nigerian youth from this devastating fate. Its provisions contain proven measures that will bring Nigeria in line with many of its international obligations under the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, also known as the global tobacco treaty, which has the potential to save 200 million lives when fully implemented.
Not surprisingly, BAT is doing everything in its power to block, delay, and thwart this bill, despite overwhelming public support for tobacco control. In recent months, BAT executives met with the governors of Lagos and Oyo states and publicized these meetings heavily – a move which actively seeks to build trust with policymakers and the public and create the illusion that these states are partnering with one of the world’s deadliest industries. But this latest so-called “corporate social responsibility” campaign is a strategy taken right from Big Tobacco’s playbook with clear goals: to kill the tobacco bill and continue addicting generations of Nigerian youth to its deadly products.
As Director of Corporate Accountability International’s Challenge Big Tobacco campaign, year after year I have seen the tobacco industry use corporate social responsibility schemes to gloss over the industry’s tarnished reputation and undermine public health policymaking. After lawsuits in the United States in the 1990s revealed that Big Tobacco lied to the public, manipulated policy and bullied governments around the world in order to protect its profits, highly paid executives and PR firms developed a strategy to distract from the industry’s history of deception. By investing a fraction of a percent of their profits in programs like disaster relief, education, and social and cultural programs, they could give the public the sense that Big Tobacco is a “responsible corporate citizen.”
But do not just take it from me. The foremost health institution on the planet, the World Health Organization, recognizes Big Tobacco’s corporate social responsibility ploy as nothing more than a thinly veiled marketing strategy. In fact, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control recommends that countries ban tobacco corporate social responsibility schemes in order to protect public health policymaking from industry manipulation. A recent study by the University of Bath confirmed this assertion: that Big Tobacco has for decades used corporate social responsibility to build relationships with policymakers, curry favour with the public and thwart legislation.
In Africa, Big Tobacco’s corporate social responsibility campaigns continue to delay progress in countries from Zambia to Malawi. In Zambia, Action on Smoking and Health reports that for years BAT has overstated the impacts of HIV/AIDS to divert attention of policymakers from the increasingly deadly problem of the tobacco epidemic. In fact, BAT organized tobacco growers to “challenge and ridicule” the FCTC through arguments highlighting the impact of HIV/AIDS in an attempt to undermine efforts to pass live-saving tobacco control laws. Because of BAT’s effective corporate social responsibility campaign, Zambian lawmakers’ hands are tied and they have yet to pass meaningful tobacco control legislation.
Some countries have taken matters into their own hands: unmasking Big Tobacco’s trickery and banning tobacco corporate social responsibility. To give but one example, shortly after Ukraine banned tobacco corporate social responsibility initiatives and adopted other tobacco control measures, smoking rates began taking a nosedive. The Ukrainian government found the national smoking rate during the period between January and September 2013 was 15 percent lower than the same period in 2012. These evidence-based policies are supported by a critical provision of the FCTC – Article 5.3 – which states that the tobacco industry has an irreconcilable conflict with public health.
The guidelines to FCTC implementation recommend government officials reject real and perceived partnerships with the tobacco industry and ban on tobacco industry corporate social responsibility.
Let’s not allow history to repeat itself. Let’s not allow BAT’s bullying to distract us from the task at hand. With the fate of thousands of young Nigerians at stake, the time to act is now. Just as neighbouring countries like Ghana have implemented tobacco controls that are the first step in saving their youth, I urge Nigeria’s Parliamentarians and policymakers to step up and follow suit. Do not fall prey to BAT’s misleading tactics and derail Nigeria’s most critical opportunity to save the lives of its people. It’s time to pass the National Tobacco Control Bill.
John Stewart is Director of the Challenge Big Tobacco Campaign with Corporate Accountability International and Chair of the Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT)
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