Opinion

Impunity as maiden test of the Tobacco Control Act

Not many know that there is a new Act of Parliament in place, known as the Tobacco Control Act. Recently passed by the 7th Parliament and signed into law a few months ago, the Act seeks to bring order into the manufacture, promotion and distribution of tobacco products in Nigeria. The reason is simple: tobacco has long been found to have dangerous public health implications. For instance, while smoking may be legal, such that an adult may choose to smoke and damn its consequences, cigarette smoke can potentially also affect non-smokers. The government has an obligation to its citizens to protect public health, ensuring that access to potentially dangerous products like tobacco by the under-aged, for instance, is outlawed and that innocent non-smokers are not subjected against their will to passive smoking and its after-effects, among others.

The Tobacco Act is, by many accounts, now a much stronger piece of legislation than its predecessor. Stakeholders including legislators and health sector workers are unanimous in the view that it will, to a large extent, control the production, promotion and distribution of tobacco products across the country and in the process help to safeguard the lives of Nigerians. Having been passed into law, the Tobacco Control Act is currently being gazetted into the country’s statutes by the Supreme Court.

It is shocking that while the Tobacco Control Act has attained this degree of progress, to the commendation of several anti-tobacco NGOs, a certain manufacturer of tobacco products with a manufacturing factory somewhere in Senegal has allegedly been granted a licence to import tobacco products into Nigeria by the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON). Using the platform of the ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme, which avails members the prerogative to export their products within the West Africa sub-region, the tobacco manufacturer will, in due course, import cigarettes and other finished products to Nigeria.

At face value, the issuance of this import licence may appear laudable, one aimed at promoting trade and commerce within the West African sub-region. On deeper interrogation, however, it raises a number of issues, all of which further question the rationale or motive behind the action.

For instance, whereas the Tobacco Control Act clearly stipulates that a licence to import tobacco products may only be granted by the Federal Minister of Health, it would appear that, perhaps taking advantage of the absence of ministers, the Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON) may have gone ahead to issue the licence itself. If, as reports indicate this is true, then SON would have acted in clear contravention of the new Act, and mortgaged the lives of Nigerians, by literally opening Nigeria’s borders to the influx of tobacco products, especially at a time when the country is still grappling with a suffusion of internally produced tobacco products as well as smuggled ones. In fact, not long ago, SON itself advertised the presence of several non-registered foreign brands of cigarettes that are to be found on the shelves of retailers across the country, warning that these cigarettes are dangerous.

In stipulating that “no person shall manufacture, import or distribute tobacco products except the person has obtained a licence or is authorized in writing to do so by the Minister”, the Tobacco Control Act obviously seeks to put a systematic leash on the influx of tobacco products in the country, in so doing, making the availability of cigarettes far more restricted and controlled than it currently is as one way of managing the public health challenge of tobacco.

Granting a licence to any importer of cigarettes in the face of this clear regulation, therefore, raises a number of questions, chief among which centres on the motivation of the officials of SON who have granted this manufacturer a licence. Is the SON ignorant of the Tobacco Control Act? Has its action been predicated on a need to enhance its coffers by the massive license fees and charges which it will obviously slam on the importer on an annual basis? Or is there a motivation for personal enrichment by the officials concerned? Tobacco is renowned globally as big money business. Are there mouth-watering counterpart underhand deals as an accompaniment to this hurriedly awarded licence to import cigarettes?

The recent licence awarded by the SON, if true, indeed raises yet another issue; it brings to light the question of lack of congruence and disharmony in Nigeria’s policymaking space. For instance, the Central Bank of Nigeria only a few weeks ago issued regulatory guidelines that seek to conserve our foreign exchange regime through strategic restriction of the importation of spurious items. Items like toothpicks, plantain chips, wooden doors and others were placed under this systematic restriction in a manner that makes it easier for the legendary camel to pass the eye of the needle than for them to be legally imported. Why issue a licence to anyone to import cigarettes when the country is strategically restricting the importation of non-essential and spurious items, anyway? It raises the question of whether or not Nigeria’s regulatory agencies bother to talk to themselves and understand the rationale behind various government policies.

The current SON scenario is the reason why government policies often seem to contradict one another. While one agency may understand and have a far-sighted view of the problem and institute policies with which to manage it, another agency may have a completely different understanding if not a total misunderstanding of the same issue and act in such a way as to undermine well thought-out policy. Ultimately, in the bedlam of confusion, well-intended policies and programmes are jettisoned and the country starts from point zero all over again. This has been our lot for decades in Nigeria.

The happenings regarding this reported issuance of a licence to a tobacco manufacturer to import cigarettes and other tobacco products to Nigeria in contravention of the Tobacco Control Act should pique the interest of all Nigerians and, very importantly, President Buhari who in the last few months has embarked on a painstaking mission to return Nigeria to a culture of doing things right. Many Nigerians are positive that the era of corruption and impunity is in fast retreat to be replaced by an era of transparency and purpose in governance and public affairs. It would be a disservice to all Nigerians if SON were to pull the hands of the clock back in an attempt to return Nigeria to an era which it is struggling to shake off. To make matters worse, it would be an even greater disservice to Nigeria if its platform for doing this is the importation of cigarettes and tobacco products which have been proven to be dangerous to the health of smokers and non-smokers alike and which therefore ought to be rigorously controlled. BUSINESSDAY

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