Framework Convention On Tobacco Control Debate
By Moses Obaloju
While the Tobacco Control debate increases in momemtum, it appears to be paying more attention to dealing with tobacco companies than anything else. One cannot help but ask if this is the right approach to reducing tobacco consumption and stemming the tide of possible increase.
There is an inherent danger that the global drive to eliminate tobacco use and manufacture will take on the same outlook that the drive to eliminate poverty took in developing countries. The attempt to eliminate poverty through the use of aid granted to many countries in Africa did not achieve its intended objectives. After pumping huge amounts of funding into different projects all in a bid to reduce poverty, , multi-lateral agencies and others have changed their strategies, believing more in socio-economic growth or poverty reduction enabled by either foreign or local investment.
As funding for tobacco control increases, so also have the organisations involved in the race to address tobacco related issues. The demand for smoking has persisted despite the increase in funding and tobacco control advocacy. Smuggling of tobacco by criminals and terrorists has also increased tremendously in countries where stringent regulation have been enacted, leading to a decrease in government revenue with no protection for public health.
Understandably Tobacco is a product that must be regulated. This is an incontestable fact. However, what can be contested is the form of regulation that will be most effective in protecting people from the harm related to smoking. It is extremely important for all tobacco policy formulators to understand the critical importance of drafting laws and policies which will have the effect they should have, within the context of its operating environment. Copy and paste laws do not work anywhere in the world, least of all in developing countries.
Tobacco policy making must also be all inclusive, everyone must state their case. It is expected that those who are charged with the affairs of formulating these laws are trust worthy enough and have the requisite expertise to make the right kind of calls that will protect public health. There is, therefore no basis for excluding the tobacco industry from deliberating on issues that will affect them. Attempting to exclude them from such discussions by engaging in unnecessary media sensationalism is mere whitewash. Funding used in this regard if any should be used to educate consumers on the ills of smoking.
For laws to be properly drafted all issues and stakeholders must be considered, with the aim of having a robust process of deliberation which can lead to sound policies and laws. Not listening to all concerned parties can invariably affect the soundness of decisions made and will also encourage adapting laws and policies which are borrowed from foreign parties and will not be effective within the local context.
Developed countries are domesticating the FCTC articles not only through inclusive strategies but also in the context of their operating environment. A recent move by the UK health department to introduce plain packaging in the UK was aborted after extensive deliberations with all stakeholders, including the tobacco industry, simply because such a move would have other unintended consequences such as increased smuggling and the loss of revenue and jobs for small businesses.
We need to be careful in Nigeria. We must not copy and paste recommended guidelines that are not mandatory but can further jeopardise the public health debate and create bigger problems in the long term. Tobacco sales and manufacture is a lucrative business for criminals and terrorists who smuggle the product into countries where policy or enforcement gaps allow the illegal trade of tobacco to thrive. The insecurity issues, lack of adequate resources and many other problems we are currently facing in Nigeria must all be put on the table with advocates thinking logically and working in the best interest of everyone. The recent allusions to the issues of tobacco smuggling must not be swept under the carpet but should be weighed alongside the impact of legislating these companies away and the attendant rise in the use of illegal tobacco which will have consequences that are far worse than we could have imagined.
While industry practices must be monitored, there are benefits associated with the existence of tobacco companies. The reality is that it is the tobacco companies, and not the tobacco control advocates, who have over the years assisted the country to reduce smuggling, replacing counterfeit tobacco products with products that several regulatory agencies can now monitor and regulate. These legally produced and properly regulated products also generate revenue for the government. There is definitely a benefit to having structured, legal tobacco companies around, versus having a situation where faceless and nameless entities flood the markets with smuggled counterfeit tobacco products. It is important to look at these issues holistically and also compare the successes recorded in other places. Each country must on its own look at how to address the issues affecting them, and so far this has been the case for most developed countries.
The failure to reduce the effect of tobacco use on public health should be seen as a need for the advocates to take another look at their strategies, although it is the norm for corporate activists world-wide to attempt to shame the businesses they attack. This strategy cannot be employed in all situations especially when you have a teeming population of consumers who say smoking is their choice.
Globally, huge sums of money have been pumped into tobacco control advocacy over the last few decades by philanthropists and many others, however, the demand for tobacco consumption persists and illegal markets continue to thrive. As the advocates continue to focus their energies on the tobacco industry, so do the criminals, smugglers and illegal marketers who continue to smile to the bank, to the detriment of public health
On one hand, tobacco control advocates report that the incidence of smoking in some of countries has declined, while on the other hand the media and enforcement agencies continue to report increased incidences of smuggling. Tobacco smuggling is often linked to the funding of terrorism and other criminal activities. Countries like Canada, Ireland and even New York, USA are some of those affected. A CNN online report of 17th May 2013, stated that “A cigarette smuggling scheme that cost New York State millions of dollars in sales tax revenue may have raised funds for militant groups…” The reality is that the strategies deployed by tobacco control advocates are attempting to push the legitimate businesses out of the picture yet these same strategies are consequently fueling the entrants of smugglers into the same space. .
Over the last few years we have seen an increase in the number of tobacco control advocates who have shown interest in tobacco control, the bills introduced into the National Assembly have increased and there is also a doubling up of efforts on other fronts including the State, Executive level and the judiciary.
The global drive to wish tobacco demand away is the same as was done for alcohol in the USA in 1920. Referring to historical antecedents can be a useful way of developing effective strategies. The introduction of alcohol prohibition in the USA in 1920 made the production, distribution and consumption of alcohol illegal and the enforcement of this law was a hotly debated issue. “The contemporary prohibitionists presented it as a victory for public morals and health, but once the laws were passed they did little to help enforce them.” Alcohol simply became a product used and traded by criminals, which made the situation worse and during this period people’s lives were put at jeopardy because of the increase in sub-standard alcohol that was available on the market. The government lost control and nothing could be done about it until the laws prohibiting alcohol were changed.
In the case of Nigeria, what needs to be considered is how we are going to tackle the issue of smuggled tobacco products when the legitimate tobacco businesses have been driven out. Are there benefits from legitimate tobacco business? Definitely yes. Does this mean that tobacco regulation will be subverted and public health put at more risk? The answer is a resounding no. Can the problem of smoking be solved through the current strategies without proffering alternative approaches? Definitely not! The simple logic as we have seen with other controversial products is that millions of people will still smoke, law or no law.
Beverage companies are giving their consumers healthier choices, so also are the tobacco companies attempting to proffer alternative options which may be considered less harmful and we should support this. The European smokeless tobacco council on their site stated that “the risk of dying from a tobacco related illness is lower in Sweden than in any other European country despite tobacco consumption being on a comparable level with other European countries. This paradox is often referred to as the Swedish Experience and is primarily explained by the fact that snus, a smokeless tobacco product, has served as a viable and less harmful alternative to cigarettes for Swedish men.” More funding should, therefore, be devoted to assisting tobacco companies come up with products like this that smokers will enjoy. The European Commission also recently declared that e-cigarettes can be regulated as general consumer goods which is a good start to assisting consumers to switch to a less harmful option.
The advocates must ensure that the confusion and distraction that has arisen recently must not divert all concerned from simple logic, which is to protect the man on the street who has chosen to smoke irrespective of the harm associated with doing do. For this to happen their focus and strategy must change and the existing funds received must be devoted to less complex areas which will achieve the results. If the legislators or government are pushed into drafting a bad tobacco law, they will invariably make matters worse. This is the message we should all walk away with.