Pushing the political will to discourage tobacco smoking
20 August 2020
Samuel Oyejola and Samirah Abdu-Aguye
I had an appointment with Shehu Adamu at a public park in Abuja in spite of the lockdown. As I walked to our meeting point trying to ensure that I complied with lockdown protocols about social distancing, I pondered on how many lives had been lost due to tobacco consumption within the country.
Research recently published by Dr. Adeloye and colleagues, revealed that about 110 million cigarettes are consumed in Nigeria daily, while over 40 billion sticks are consumed yearly. They also estimated that one in every ten Nigerian smokes, which given the huge size of our population-highlights a large number of smokers and the potential for second-hand smoke to wreak havoc on the equally large number of non-smokers exposed to cigarette smoke. Their findings are alarming for several reasons. In the first instance-with the continued spread of Covid-19, experts have warned that smokers are at higher risk of mortality compared to non-smokers. Tobacco smoking is also known to be associated with an increased risk of developing and dying from several serious disease conditions e.g. various types of cancers, stroke and heart disease.
Adamu was well prepared for our meeting. When he saw me from afar, he disengaged from the discussion he was having with his friends and came over to exchange pleasantries with me. The environment reeked of cigarette smoke, and I could see the fumes emitted from the circle of his friends. “We were discussing general politics,” he said. “Over cigarette sticks,” I interjected, and we both laughed. “I began smoking while I was in secondary school. My friends and I would sneak out of our classrooms to a nearby bush to smoke. It was fun for us, and a source of pride that we could outsmart the school authorities” he said. He has continued smoking since then.
Smoking in Nigeria is a scourge. Evidence shows that the number of smokers is increasing daily, with the tobacco industry benefiting immensely from this. Regrettably, the governments’ public health policies lack effective insulation from the interest of the tobacco industry. According to several Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) leading the campaign to ban tobacco smoking within the country, cigarette manufacturers have found ways to prevent the full implementation of policies to effectively control tobacco consumption.
The Nigerian government sometimes also sends conflicting messages with regards to their support for the tobacco industry. Recently the governor of Oyo State, called for the support of one of the biggest tobacco manufacturers within the country - British American Tobacco Nigeria, to support the efforts of his government in combating the spread of Covid-19 in the state. This led to an anti-smoking NGO- the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) to issue a statement denouncing his action. The group alleged that any donation made by tobacco manufacturers to combat the spread of Covid-19 is a Greek gift, which is “ultimately targeted at compromising public officials, weakening health systems and positioning tobacco companies as credible stakeholders in public health policy”.
Since the 1950s, the Nigerian government has been making efforts to initiate policies to control tobacco consumption within the country. However, the economic gains from the tobacco industry has created a conflict of interests in the will to initiate (and sustain) any such policies. In a move to show the commitment of public officials to tobacco control, the Nigerian National Assembly in 2019 approved the draft National Tobacco Control Regulation. This approved regulation gives teeth to the National Tobacco Control Act signed into law in 2015. The newly approved regulation focuses on limiting the licensing of tobacco products, ensuring that graphic health warnings are included on cigarette packs, establishing smoke-free zones and restricting tobacco advertising and sponsorship amongst others. Stakeholders are optimistic that these provisions-which will take effect in 2021, should have a significant impact on curtailing tobacco smoking within the country.
In the meantime, anti-tobacco stakeholders will continue to observe how the government will commit to implementing this tobacco control legislation to the letter. However there is therefore the need for the government to strictly enforce the provision of the National Tobacco Control Act to safeguard Nigerians' health.