(OPINION) Tobacco: Celebrating 20 years of death and diseases?

“THE true face of smoking is disease, death and horror, not the glamour and sophistication the pushers in the tobacco industry try to portray” – David Byrne.

Notwithstanding the heavy toll of cigarettes and other deadly nicotine products on consumers, the tobacco industry continues to employ duplicitous tactics to undermine public health efforts further and carry on business as usual. The Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023, published by Pan-African watchdog Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies through the Centre for Good Governance, unveils a range of such deceptive tactics adopted by the industry.

They include leveraging corporate social responsibility activities to launder its image and utilising misleading harm reduction arguments to masquerade as public health advocates and infiltrate critical policy discussions.


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On the one hand, faced with irrefutable scientific evidence, the industry reluctantly admits the deadly harm of its products and professes an ironic willingness to reduce the harm in newer products and comply with tobacco control laws. On the other hand, it actively engages in notoriously devious conduct that contradicts its confessions. This much is evidenced in a recent case in point epitomising the industry’s underhand approach of circumventing advertising and promotion restrictions imposed by Nigeria’s National Tobacco Control Act 2015 and the National Tobacco Control Regulations 2019.

Imagine celebrating 20 years of manufacturing the world’s leading cause of preventable death: tobacco and other nicotine products. This is exactly what British American Tobacco (Nigeria) Limited (BAT Nigeria) – a prominent player among the world’s top five tobacco companies, collectively known as “Big Tobacco” – did in Ibadan, Oyo State, on February 6, 2024.

Officially, the multinational said it was marking two decades of its Ibadan factory’s exceptional value delivery to the Nigerian economy, the environment, and the communities it serves. In a statement ahead of the event, the company described the factory as “a shining example” of its “commitment to excellence and sustainability in Nigeria,” further boasting of its significant contributions to the country.

What, of course, BATN conspicuously omitted in its narrative of celebration is that the health and economic costs of smoking-related deaths and diseases in Nigeria – such as heart diseases, lung diseases, cancer, etc – far outweigh any supposed contribution it claims to make.

A 2021 research conducted by the Centre for the Study of Economies of Africa (CSEA) underscores the gravity of this issue, revealing that tobacco smoking is responsible for 28,876 annual deaths in Nigeria.

The CSEA’s research further found that the direct costs of treating these smoking-related diseases amount to N526.45 billion each year, which was equivalent to 0.36 per cent of the Nigerian GDP in 2019 and 9.63 per cent of the country’s annual healthcare spending, placing a substantial burden on Nigeria’s healthcare system and economy.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) was identified as the top cause of smoking-attributable mortality, followed by ischemic heart disease, stroke, passive smoking, lower respiratory tract infection, and cardiovascular deaths of non-ischemic cause. Adding up productivity losses due to illness, early deaths and informal caregivers, tobacco-related diseases represented 0.44 per cent of the GDP in 2019, according to the CSEA study.

Another study on the estimated benefits of increasing cigarette prices through taxation on the burden of disease, published in 2022 in the PLOS ONE journal, found that tobacco’s total economic burden accounts for ₦634 billion annually, considering direct treatment costs, productivity losses (due to early mortality and disability) and informal caregiving cost. It added that in Nigeria, the tax revenue generated by the sale of cigarettes (and other tobacco products) was around ₦36 billion in 2019, which covered only 6.9 per cent of the direct medical costs of smoking, or 5.7 per cent of the total financial burden.

As for the environmental sustainability of manufacturing cigarettes, the public and regulators may want to bear in mind that Nigeria is Africa’s second highest contributor to the $26 billion global costs of environmental pollution caused by plastics in cigarette butts and packaging every year, according to data analysed by The African Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA).

The ATCA’s conclusion, as contained in a statement issued in 2023, followed its analysis of research findings by the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control, published in the Tobacco Control journal.

The analysis found that African countries with the highest smoking rate contribute the most to the cigarette filter pollution costs, estimated at $26 billion annually or $186 billion every ten years — adjusted for inflation — in waste management and marine ecosystem damage worldwide. These countries include South Africa, Nigeria, Sudan, Mozambique, Kenya, and Ethiopia.

Yet, despite the grave consequences and impacts of its operations on public health and the environment, the industry continues to award itself accolades while craftily sidestepping its obligations to national tobacco control laws.

‘‘Whilst Nigeria’s National Tobacco Control Act and its Regulations have largely checked the activities of tobacco corporations and entities, the industry has exploited some weaknesses in these laws and gaps in the system to interfere in tobacco control,” said CAPPA’s Executive Director, Akinbode Oluwafemi.

One such tactic, Akinbode noted, “is the tobacco industry’s cunning use and loud celebration of its CSR activities in the media and public to whitewash its image, thereby creating a façade of responsibility and desirability. These initiatives, often endorsed, lauded by, and executed in collaboration with state authorities, further entrench the industry’s influence, undermining public health campaigns.’’

Aside from the negative health and environmental impacts of the tobacco industry in Nigeria, one also notes an interesting observation concerning BATN’s proclaimed contribution to empowering local communities.

The corporation touted its Ibadan factory’s “exceptional value delivery to the Nigerian economy, the environment, and the communities it serves.” However, this claim finds little to no echo among the tobacco-growing communities in the Oke-Ogun axis of Oyo state, which purportedly benefit from the factory’s operations.

During a field visit undertaken by CAPPA last May, as part of its monitoring activities leading up to World No Tobacco Day 2023, tobacco farmers from Ilu Oke, Ilero, and Iseyin, Oke-Ogun area recounted how BATN had allegedly ceased purchasing their tobacco, citing heavy government taxation as a reason for their withdrawal.

These farmers, who had devoted years to cultivating tobacco, articulated their struggles in pivoting to alternative agricultural ventures after years of tobacco farming and without enough support. Their testimonies also flagged the absence of the tobacco giant’s sourcing offices in the region, indicating perhaps a strategic decommissioning of the corporation’s procurement belt.






     

     

    The BATN also claimed that its Ibadan factory had facilitated the export of its products to “11 countries in the West and Central Africa region, and more recently, to the United States of America, thereby placing made-in-Nigeria products on the global stage” However, if the testimonies of retired tobacco farmers in Oyo State are to be considered, this raises a significant question: If BATN is not purchasing tobacco from its immediate community—which hosts the largest concentration of tobacco farms and growers in Nigeria—where then is the company sourcing the commodity it processes, sells and exports?

    Unsurprisingly, tobacco control advocates and groups in the country have continued to urge the Nigerian government to not only investigate export expansion grants and benefits unduly awarded to tobacco companies but also provide substantial support to farmers in their transition from tobacco farming to other crops required to sustain and nourish public health.

    As evidence shows and the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasises, tobacco consumption remains the leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide. Now, more than ever, the Nigerian government must fully commit to implementing and enforcing public health rules. This includes reviewing ambiguities in tobacco control laws to effectively prevent the tobacco industry from compromising public health and governance.

    Dr Olayinka Oyegbile, an award-winning journalist and playwright, is a Fellow of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Public Health Reporting and the American Cancer Society (ACS). Until recently, Oyegbile was deputy editor of The Nation on Sunday. He can be reached via [email protected].

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