Why legislators must be fair on tobacco legislation
ALL over the world, the issues around tobacco production, consumption and control occupy the attention of quite a lot of people spread across a colourful spectrum of those who think tobacco consumption should be banned and others who believe the product, which is legal globally, should be consumed responsibly by those who are so inclined.
The industry has witnessed a proliferation of lobbyists, non-governmental organisations, among several others who are pushing one agenda or the other. Nigeria has its fair share of people and organisations that have a keen interest in the tobacco industry.
This much was in evidence when the House of Representatives Committees on Health and Justice, and also the Senate Committee on Health held public hearings over the tobacco bills under consideration.
The hearing rooms were packed full with many of the attendees submitting one memorandum or the other. Quite a number of issues occupied the interest of participants at the two public hearings.
Preventing young people from smoking, clear delineation of smoke-free areas and areas where smoking is permissible, the responsibilities and membership of the proposed National Committee on Tobacco Control and the right of producers to communicate with their trade partners, among others were some of the major issues that were discussed.
The discussions were open and transparent with members of the National Assembly particularly striving to ensure that there was a level playing field for stakeholders to air their views in the open. Memoranda were adopted in the presence of all and the legislators went further to show that they were not only transparent in their dealings with the public, but were keen to be seen as transparent.
However, reports emanating from the National Assembly indicate that some anti-tobacco groups have been pressuring members of the committees of the House and Senate that held the public hearings.
This is with a view to infusing into the final bill clauses that were not presented at the public hearings; in some instances, the new clauses that the anti-tobacco coalition is pushing to be included in the final draft bill were not the same as those presented at the public hearings.
This is clearly unethical. A few of the “new demands” need highlighting. While at the public hearing, it was agreed by participants that it was important that public places, which hitherto had no restriction on smoking, should be declared smoke-free zones but with a caveat: A section that is well ventilated should be provided for people who chose to smoke to do so without infringing on the rights of non-smokers to tobacco-free air.
However, in the fresh demands of the coalition, they are calling for a total ban on smoking even in places such as restaurants, hotels and bars where adults frequent, even if such places meet the strictest guidelines in delineating smoke-free environments from places where smoking is allowed.
The total ban on outdoor places, in the estimation of the anti-tobacco groups, is the first step towards achieving a complete ban on tobacco production and consumption in Nigeria.
Another demand, which was not made public at the hearing, but one that is being surreptitiously pursued by the anti-tobacco groups, is the issue of branding cigarette packs.
Their new demand is for cigarette packs to be altered in such a way that the different brand names will be subsumed under health warnings and in so doing, eliminate or completely remove the ability of producers to brand their products and consumers from differentiating one product from another.
Worse still, it will be impossible for law enforcement agencies and consumers to differentiate between a counterfeit or smuggled product from one that has been produced under strict regulations, with statutory payments made to government.
Yet, another fresh demand of the anti-tobacco lobby for inclusion into the draft tobacco regulation bill is the total exclusion of the legitimate tobacco producers from any engagement, particularly those geared towards regulating the tobacco industry.
They claim that the views of the legitimate producers are not needed or relevant in crafting legislation to regulate their products. The protagonists of this viewpoint based their arguments on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which they are urging members of the National Assembly to adopt the most stringent recommendations in crafting legislation on tobacco control.
The FCTC, which was formulated by the World Health Organisation, only recommends thresholds, and also states that in engaging tobacco producers, it must be in an open and transparent manner.
There is no clause wherein it was stated that legitimate producers should be completely excluded from the engagement process aimed at finding solutions to challenges in the industry.
Members of the committee and indeed the National Assembly should be wary of the scare tactics of the anti-tobacco groups. This tactic has been discredited severally, even by a member of the Senate committee at the public hearings.
While other groups presented their memoranda, which were based on factual information in a civil manner, a member of the anti-tobacco groups attempted to scare members of the committee and others by bandying exaggerated figures to make his case better than it seemed.
Senator Gyang Pwajok took umbrage at the US$591 million which Nigerians were purported to spend yearly on medical treatment as a result of tobacco consumption and the allegation that as many as 20 billion cigarette sticks are sold yearly in Nigeria.
The lawmaker simply told the purveyor of such tales that the figures were not based on any research and were at best far-fetched. Senator Pwajok, in fact, doubted the authenticity and motives of many of such supposed “public spirited” groups.
It is advisable that in finalizing the Tobacco Control Bill, members of the National Assembly hinge their conclusions on only the memos and submissions presented either prior to, or at the public hearings.
Accepting memos through the backdoor, in which case the content of the memo will not be open to public scrutiny, would fall far short of acceptable global best practice, particularly for the fact such submissions only embody one point of view.
As canvassed on several occasions by key stakeholders, what is paramount at the end of the day is a regulation that is balanced, one that takes cognizance of Nigeria’s public health aspirations.
In doing so, however, tobacco control regulation must also be sufficiently robust as not to leave room for unintended consequences which could ultimately create worse social and economic problems.
Carrying out public hearings and aggregating opinions have been a critical part of the process of developing robust and enforceable tobacco control legislation.
Legislators should refuse to be influenced by the latter-day attempts by certain so-called anti-tobacco lobbyists to derail this process. •Ms Obi is of the Centre for the Promotion of Enterprise and Business Best Practice, Abuja.