Now that Tobacco Control Fund has been operationalised
By PHILIP JAKPOR
Sustainable funding is crucial to winning the tobacco control war and no one understands this better than the tobacco industry. Realising that low-and middle-income countries like Nigeria devote meagre or zero allocation to implementing tobacco control policies, the tobacco industry has cleverly etched its footprint in sectors where government agencies are financially crippled.
The industry is particularly active in the agricultural sector and so-called youth empowerment and skills acquisition training that are well choreographed to garner endorsements from public officials who see them as openings for partnerships with a supposed “stakeholder” to achieve “societal good”.
But such endorsements and the partnerships that follow are exactly what the World Health Organisation (WHO) discourages and cautions Parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to be wary about. Article 5.3 of the FCTC specifically urges parties to protect their public health policies from the commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.
The WHO also encourages governments to ban all tobacco industry Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, establish and/or enforce a code of conduct to limit interactions between government officials and the tobacco industry, and when such interactions are strictly necessary, they must be transparent. It also suggests that where a code of conduct exists, regular training and awareness on tobacco industry inferences in line with Article 5.3 must be conducted for public officials, among others.
But the tobacco industry is also smart albeit in the negative. To circumvent the recommendations of the Convention, tobacco corporations yearly deploy huge financial war chests into compromising and creating conflicts of interest with public officials, especially in sectors where government intervention is non-existent or inadequate. In this way, the tobacco industry effectively clips the hands of governments in regulating the tobacco business. They also pump huge resources into tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorships that seem harmless on the surface but are in fact, subtle ways of recruiting the next generation of smokers.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2019, the largest cigarette and smokeless tobacco companies spent $8.2 billion on advertising and promotional expenses in the United States alone.
For a country like Nigeria which is by far the most populous nation in Africa, its huge population which is made up of predominantly youth, is a market opportunity for the tobacco industry. British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) which controls over 80% of the Nigerian market continues to break new grounds through its BATN Foundation (BATNF). The Foundation is currently in partnership with virtually all the states of the federation in agricultural production. It has signed MOUs with virtually all of them in implementing their FADAMA projects.
Such projects literally litter Abia, Benue, Kwara, Kogi, Lagos, Niger, Ogun and Osun states, among others. In Lagos, it partners with the state government in organising the yearly Lagos Farm Fair and has been training fish farmers and various cooperatives on so-called capacity building engagements.
The Conrad Foundation funded by the Foundation for Smoke-Free World (FSFW) allied to Philip Morris International is equally active in the education space, exploiting scholarships for pupils in prestigious secondary schools in Nigeria as an entry point to forge partnerships. Through the Conrad Challenge eligible Nigerian pupils have been funded to travel to the United States and other countries to pursue projects that they came up with. Most of such kids are blindsided and not made to hear about tobacco harm in the public communication of the promoters of these initiatives.
The dangers of the industry partnerships and the endorsements they get from such entanglements are the motivation behind the recent operationalisation of the National Tobacco Control Fund by the Nigerian government. Section 8 (2) of the National Tobacco Control (NTC) Act 2015 and Sections 23 and 26 of the National Tobacco Control Regulations 2019 provide for annual budgetary allocations, gifts, donations, testamentary dispositions, subventions, license fees, and proceeds of the sale of forfeited items shall go into the Fund. Though Nigerians are yet to see the relevant government agencies charged with enforcing the Act adequately funded to get on with their work, it is reassuring that Nigeria has taken this bold step.
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Most developed nations understand this fact and continually explore available options to keep the funding tap open. Such funding options by developed countries implementing tobacco control policies include Taxes on tobacco or health-damaging goods such as alcohol; Treasury appropriation; Value added tax (VAT); Health/sickness or universal health cover insurance levy; Philanthropic donations; and Funds collected through penalties for violations of legislation, among others.
Unfortunately, these options remain largely unnoticed and untapped by the Nigerian government and create loopholes that the tobacco industry explores to continue business as usual.
To wean government agencies off the allure of tobacco industry funds, the agencies must independently have access to the needed resources to be able to carry out timely and proactive interventions required for the successful implementation of tobacco control policies in the country.
No doubt, a Tobacco Control Fund regime will make funds readily available for them to carry out all public health sensitization activities, cessation programs, alternative cropping, and other critical activities. It will also eliminate the reliance of the government on donor and foreign funding and aid the setting up of structures across the country to help people who want to quit and monitor compliance.
Nigerians expect that the operationalisation of the fund will not just be a mere formality. The more delays there are, the more the tobacco industry will addict our youth and unleash a cycle of death already before us.