By Charles Ozegbe
The recently-released Tobacco Interference Index 2020 Report which established that the Nigerian government has fallen short of several critical standards of transparency and probity in engagements with the tobacco industry, is indeed an eye-opener to how far the industry will go to thwart implementation of the World Health Organisation – Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC).
The report found out that the tobacco industry in Nigeria has been interfering unnecessarily in tobacco control policies and has also been unlawfully engaging in so-called corporate social responsibility activities in clear contravention of the National Tobacco Control Act which was passed in 2015.
Overall, Nigeria scored 49 in the survey which was supervised by the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC) at the School of Global Studies in Thammasat University, Thailand.
For the public health community, the report reinforces its conclusion that Nigeria’s journey to full compliance with the WHO-FCTC is still far-flung and may still face additional hurdles except the Nigerian government recognises the tobacco industry as a mortal opponent.
It is a fact that Nigeria ratified the WHO-FCTC on October 20, 2005, but only succeeded in putting in place a national law to domesticate it after a tortuous 10 years. Those years were fraught with tobacco industry-instigated manipulations that frustrated the signing of the NTC Act into law in 2011, even after the National Assembly passed it.
The second attempt at getting the law in place was a near miss except for a stroke of luck which made former president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, to sign it into law on May 16, 2015, three days before the terminus of that administration. Yet, the law was embedded with a loophole that stopped its implementation until regulations were put in place. That did not happen until May 2019, after which it was gazetted in December of that same year.
It would have been anticipated that implementation would have begun but alas! It has not. The public health community is particularly worried that in the 2020 National Budget in which the health sector received N427 billion there was no budget for tobacco control. A reasonable chunk of the budgetary allocation to the sector went to the Basic Health Care Provision Fund (BHCPF) which received N44.5 billion.
The BHCP Funds is to be administered through the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA), and the Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH). Recurrent expenditure stood at N336 billion, while capital expenditure is N46.47 billion. There was no mention of the tobacco control fund.
Time and again, it has been said that the major reason why agencies of government run cap in hand to the tobacco industry or fall for the cheap monies they throw around is because of the dearth of funds to implement projects that would otherwise have been funded by the government. This lacuna is continually exploited by the tobacco industry which has a financial war chest that it is ready to deploy to create a conflict of interest for public officials that they engage.
For instance, one of the leading tobacco companies in Nigeria is listed on the Nigerian Private Sector Advisory Group (PSAG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which was inaugurated by the Nigerian government on February 28, 2017. The tobacco industry is involved with state governments in the implementation of their FADAMA projects in Abia, Benue, Kwara, Kogi, Lagos, Niger, Ogun, and Osun States.
The industry is also wedded to the Lagos State government, especially in agricultural initiatives that the state government is very well capable of funding, including its yearly Lagos Farm Fair which holds on October 16 in commemoration of the World Food Day.
To combat an industry that does not back down in its avowed mission of addicting young and underage smokers, all hands must be on deck. It is no mean task, and this would require huge resources and manpower. While the Federal Ministry of Health must take the lead, it is by no means the only agency that can make this happen.
The Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) took the gauntlet by embarking on enforcement of some provisions of the law in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano, and Ibadan.
To ensure sustainability and provide the needed funding for tobacco control, the Nigerian government needs to explore some available options. The Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance (NTCA) and other groups recently recommended one of them in a letter to the Speaker, House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila. The groups demanded that the Nigerian government heavily tax tobacco products and earmark the taxes to fund tobacco control and health coverage for all Nigerians.
This recommendation tallies with the WHO strategy of reducing consumption of tobacco products and at the same time providing funding for government policies aimed at prosecuting the tobacco war.
Another source of funding in the waiting is embedded in the NTC Act 2015 which recommended a Tobacco Control fund as an institutionalised funding mechanism.
Part 3, Section 8 (1) of the NTC Act 2015 provides “for the creation of the Tobacco Control Fund which shall consist of monies made available by the Federal Government from annual budgetary allocation approved by the National Assembly”.
Other sources of funding suggested in the Act are monies in form of subventions from any of the governments of the Federation to meet the stated objectives of the Act, etc.
Until this recommendation is implemented, the sustainability of ongoing tobacco control efforts is not guaranteed, and the lungs of Nigerians remain endangered.
Ozegbe is based in Benin City, Edo State