Public health advocates have condemned big tobacco industry players for constantly deploying ‘underhand tactics’ to undermine the health of millions of users of their products as they continue to innovate and introduce new products to the market in Nigeria and globally.
The Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) raised the alarm at a media briefing and unveiling of the Nigeria Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023 on Tuesday, November 21, 2023, in Lagos.
In his welcome address, Executive Director of CAPPA, Akinbode Oluwafemi, described the report as ‘a critical document that seeks to outline the insidious interference of the tobacco industry in Nigeria’s pro-public health efforts,’ adding that globally, the tobacco industry has intensified efforts to derail public health policies, undermining the actions of governments to safeguard the well-being of their citizens and that Nigeria is not an exception.
His words: “The report highlights how tobacco companies use a slew of tactics to overwhelm national protective health measures, preying on governmental regulations and cohesion gaps. For Nigeria, it is the third in the series and shows a marked deterioration in Nigeria’s rating from 53 points in 2021 to 60 in the period under review.
“In Nigeria, the tobacco industry maintains a significant presence and participation in critical interagency/multi-sectoral committee meetings such as that of the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), where supposed classified resolutions on standards are discussed and agreed upon.”
He explained that findings showed that, despite existing policies, the government’s reluctance to fully disclose interactions with the tobacco industry continues to hinder progress in tobacco control efforts.
“The findings are also echoed in the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023 where Nigeria is listed among seven countries in which national boards were influenced by the industry to develop standards which laid the groundwork to legalize new tobacco and nicotine products.
“It is on this note that we once again express our firm rejection of the tobacco industry’s growing attempts and lobbying to market new products, including non-combustible alternatives like snus, chew and dip, among others.
“Contrary to the industry’s narrative, these so-called ‘safer’ alternatives still contain harmful chemicals that pose significant health risks. Research by health scientists on emerging and newly identified health risks has shown that these products, often touted as safer, carry considerable health risks.
“They have detrimental effects on cardiovascular health, increase the risk of diabetes and metabolic syndrome, impair oral health and pose risks to both mothers and their babies.”
Stressing that tobacco kills irrespective of the mode of consumption or the type of product marketed, he wondered why people particularly Nigerians have to choose between various harmful products when we can avoid them altogether and save lives.
“We urge the government, particularly the SON, to act as a bulwark for the health of Nigerians, and discard any ideas or proposals to legitimise these products that will further corrupt and pose a significant threat to the public health of Nigerians.
“The undue influence of the tobacco industry is further reflected in and entrenched through their so-called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, where they sponsor social and economic initiatives that are not only celebrated in the media but also endorsed by the government at different levels.
“A notable instance is BATNF’s 2021 partnership with the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), a Federal Government scheme, to empower young agricultural farmers financially,” he added.
He maintained that the activities not only serve to burnish the public image of the industry but also bestow an unwarranted level of legitimacy on them in contravention of national tobacco control regulations, lamenting that the continued engagement of senior government officials and state authorities with tobacco companies in social functions and other events further complicates the issue, casting doubts on the government’s commitment to public health.
The industry has also seemingly benefitted from government initiatives such as the instance of the BATN receiving an award for the Best Exporter to African Markets in 2022 from the Nigeria Export Promotion Council, an agency under the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment.
Akinbode further argued that the kind of interaction between the tobacco industry and government representatives suggests possible behind-the-scenes engagements between them and raises serious concerns about the transparency of such engagements, given the clear provisions of the Nigerian tobacco control regulations on the prevention and management of such dealings with the tobacco industry.
“Although measures to curtail the aforementioned abnormalities exist in the NTCA 2015 and the National Tobacco Control Regulations 2019, there are ambiguities in the law that allow the tobacco industry to exploit loopholes, thereby, further hampering tobacco control efforts.
“Moreover, the lack of a systematic approach to consistently raise awareness within government departments about the WHO-FCTC Article 5.3 Guidelines (which essentially speaks to the protection of tobacco control policies from the industry’s interference) is a significant lapse that needs immediate attention.
“To counter these, we have proposed some measures as you will see in the report such as the full implementation of the NTCA and its regulations, enhanced transparency in government dealings with the tobacco industry, synergy between the federal and state governments and public officials’ regular conflict-of-interest disclosures.
“And it is our hope that this report jolts the Nigerian government and all stakeholders to stand up for public health and fortify their defences against the machinations of the tobacco industry,” he concluded.