LAST month during the House Committee on health hearing on Tobacco Bill, the Chairman of the committee said their intention was not to ban production of legitimate tobacco locally. Of course, one can safely assume that halting the production of tobacco locally is not the intended outcome of the Tobacco Bill now pending before the National Assembly; but slamming unbalanced regulations on the industry will ultimately lead to outcome similar to prohibition.
Regulations are important for most consumables because of the inherent risks in over consumption. Tobacco products are no exception. The need for regulation does not imply that that supposed risk associated with tobacco product should be combated with skewed regulation. At the core of the regulation is government, consumer, general public and the industry. Regulations that do not take cognizance of these competing stakeholders would not stand the test of time.
In many developing countries, particularly in most African countries, a tiny fraction of their population actually smoke. The overall smoking rates among men and women in Africa are low compared to other developed nations. According to 2009 country by country smoking data by Tobacco Atlas, smoking among males in Australia is 22.3 %, Denmark 30%, Greece 63%, US 32% Canada 23.8 % while it is 10.6% in Ghana, 15.2 in Benin, 8.9% in Niger, 15.6 in Senegal. The Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) 2013, conducted by National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), estimates that 5.6% of Nigerians consume tobacco products.
What can blur any regulation is for it to be modelled along certain framework developed by bureaucrats in Geneva not minding contextual differences in each country. Unfortunately, the current tobacco bill at the National Assembly is modelled to WHO projection and its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a treaty designed in 2003. The key driver of anti-tobacco advocacy and the current bill is largely driven by the WHO's projection that 70 per cent of estimated 8.4 million tobacco death will occur in developing countries by 2020. This in turn had resulted into hordes of legislative interventions.
Since WHO inception, guidelines, projections and targets are not in short supply. Of course the WHO has been in the vanguard of formulation health guidelines and designing treaties, apparently to shore up healthcare of inhabitants on earth today. However, it is on record that WHO projections are mostly inaccurate and its targets are largely unmet. A perfect example is the WHO's ambitious goal in 2001 to treat three million HIV/AIDS patients in developing countries in 2005. Unfortunately, less than half of that target were met. What is inherently wrong with these projections and targets are their one cap fits all approach without regard to local peculiarities in each of the countries. Policymakers should not be tempted, because it comes from WHO and other agencies, to domesticate hook, line and sinker treaties and policy guidelines from world bodies whose officials are far removed from realities in each of the countries
The key consideration for the National Assembly therefore is whether banning of tobacco products in Nigeria will not have serious backlash given our porous border. The blowback is better imagined than felt. The central questions for stakeholders are (a) would stoppage of production of tobacco product locally make smokers quit? (b) Who would fill in the vacuum created by the stoppage of legitimate local producers given our porous borders? (c) Would those who might fill in the vacuum be in the national and public interest?
The public discussion about the effect of tobacco in Nigeria in recent time tends to suggest that the best way to end health risk associated with tobacco product is when the industry stops production. What should be realized is if the regulatory environment force local firms to stop production, smokers will still get the products through a variety of sources. This will come at a higher cost, such as loss of revenue to the government and other higher societal costs. At best, such regulations will simply add to the existing number of regulations currently available within the sector. Nevertheless, coming up with a balanced regulation does not have to be based on scare tactics currently being bandied about but based on irrefutable and well tested facts. A regulation based on the former may be applauded by certain interest groups but will ultimately lead to certain unintended consequences.
Compared to other causes of death in Nigeria such as malaria, typhoid and child mortality, smoking is not a national calamity. The numbers of people dying daily from these diseases should be a cause for concern. In fact national emergency ought to be declared in tackling these diseases. Data from National Bureau of Statistics clearly suggests that 94 per cent of all Nigerian adult do not smoke and over 99 per cent of women have never smoked. With this high preponderance of non-smokers, it shows that Nigeria has a predominantly non-smoking population. The campaign against the tobacco industry and cigarette products is not supported by available data.
As the tobacco bill debates moves to the Senate, the upper legislative chamber must tread with caution by not allowing emotions, inaccurate data and scare tactics to be the hallmark upon which their decision on the tobacco bill would be hinged on. Rather it should be based on accurate data and realities in our country, and not what is obtainable in Geneva. The latter is the appropriate way in which time tested legislation can be passed. Overcoming hazards pose by any product requires a number of policy measures, which encompass the economic, social, and educational spheres.
Coming up with regulations which stifle legitimate production of tobacco product will ultimately lead to smuggling. This in turn can effectively contribute to worsening security challenge we grapple with. Resorting to unbalanced regulations that are skewed against the industry while pandering to the groups whose aim is to drive down legitimate tobacco producers is unhelpful. It will clearly undermine the efforts of those working day and night to make Nigeria the preferred investment destination in Africa.
The author is with the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis, an Independent Think Tank based in Lagos, Nigeria.
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