Tobacco industry political activity remains a largely overlooked obstacle in the development and implementation of policies to regulate industry activities. From their marketing strategies to their so-called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities and their buying of scientific and other expertise to create controversy about established facts, the tobacco industry is never away from duty.
Tonnes of formerly secret internal tobacco industry documents reveal their involvement in legal, political, and socially important issues and confirm that they are not disposed to act morally or responsibly. A tobacco industry former executive once stated: “Our goal is to help shape regulatory environments that enable our businesses to achieve their objectives”. He went on to add that the company will “act aggressively with all available resources, against any attempt, from any quarter, to diminish its ability to manufacture products efficiently, and market them effectively”.
What remains clear as crystal is that tobacco companies and their proxies are unwavering and continue to convey their false narratives through direct and indirect lobbying, the advancement of voluntary codes and alternative policies, and the creation of alliances with other industrial sectors.
In Nigeria, not much research is needed to unearth these kinds of activities by the industry. In 2020 the Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) and other anti-tobacco groups learned of a proposed Draft Policy on Conventional Tobacco and Non-Combusted Alternatives to Cigarette Smoking allegedly sent to the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Investment by the tobacco industry. As anticipated, the promoters of the document deliberately bypassed the government focal point on tobacco control, the Federal Ministry of Health, with the intent of creating a conflict. The proposal which is consistent with the advocacy for so-called less harmful products by corporations like Philip Morris falls flat on arguments when weighed side by side with the proven life-saving propositions in the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC). Article 5.3 of the WHO-FCTC equally mandates Parties to ensure that tobacco or tobacco products control policies are implemented over and above any contrary interest of the commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry because of the inherent and irreconcilable conflict of interest between public health policy goals and the commercial interests of the tobacco industry.
Though the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment did not respond to civil society demands to comment on the draft policy, the industrial action itself represented a consistent pattern that the tobacco industry employs at any point tobacco control legislation is about to take root in any country.
It can be said, however, that the disturbing episode was pivotal to the growing momentum for adequate and sustained funding for Nigeria’s tobacco control efforts in view of the widely held view of the public health community that if government agencies are starved of funds to enforce tobacco control laws, the tobacco industry will exploit the opportunity to “intervene” to gain good public rating and ultimately stall regulation of any sort. Such so-called interventions in the form of CSR are carried out by the British American Tobacco Nigeria Foundation (BATNF) in partnership with the federal and virtually all the state ministries of agriculture and are given undue publicity, especially in the virtual space. The engagements are largely driven by the need for the involved government agencies to fill the funding void.
Ironically, Section 8 (2) of the National Tobacco Control Act 2015 and Sections 23 and 26 of the National Tobacco Control Regulations 2019 offer ready funding opportunities for tobacco control which the Federal Government is yet to exploit. Explicitly, the Act and its Regulations provide for annual budgetary allocations, gifts, donations, testamentary dispositions, subventions, license fees, and proceeds of sale of forfeited items to go into the Tobacco Control Fund. In 2021, six years after the National Tobacco Control Act 2015 was signed into law, an account was set up for the Fund. There is however a lingering question as to whether the Federal Ministry of Health and the relevant agencies tasked with ensuring the account is funded are seizing the opportunity that the Tobacco Control legislations are offering to raise funds.
It is worth reiterating that stymieing industry efforts on one front doesn’t necessarily stop the industry’s advance on another front. In as much as there is progress in enforcing some sections of the National Tobacco Control Act, the federal government must prosecute the tobacco war with tact and demonstrate seriousness in establishing measures to limit interactions between public officials and the tobacco industry. As calls grow for the full enforcement of the Graphic Health Warnings Policy and the ban on Tobacco Advertising Promotion and Sponsorships (TAPS), so also will the need for funding such exercises grow. The government must realize that the battle against tobacco is a war of numbers. The needless delay means more deaths and more tobacco addicts. Prevaricating will only keep the industry ahead in the game.
Philip Jakpor works with Corporate Accountability & Public Participation Africa