The new tobacco bill
A legislation approved last week by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) contains provisions that toughen existing laws, including up to two years in prison and 5 million naira in fine, on the trade in and consumption of tobacco in the country. According to Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu, the areas that are being targeted in the legislation include the environment. “We want to produce 100 per cent tobacco-free environment for people who do not want anything to do with tobacco use. And so places will be clearly designated whether public places, whether indoor, or outdoor will be clearly designated as non smoking area”, he said. The proposal will now go to the National Assembly for debate and possible passage.
But part of the problem is the smuggling of tobacco and related products into the country through the borders. This has made their proliferation in the country a serious challenge. Deterring their consumption should go pari passu with curtailing their availability. This illicit traffic is a lucrative one, because it constitutes between 9 and 11 percent of global trade in tobacco products, with low and middle income countries suffering from higher rates of it.
In Nigeria, smuggling cigarettes is facilitated by the long and porous land borders and proximity to sea ports in neighbouring Benin Republic and Togo. The land borders require enormous human and technological policing resources, which Nigeria has not been able to meet. The dangers and physical hardship involved in manning even legal entry points make security personnel highly vulnerable to financial inducements easily available to the powerful and wealthy syndicates running the illicit business.
Smuggling through borders of Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Katsina, Kano, and Jigawa states bring in cigarettes from Libya, Morocco and Egypt; while cigarettes made in China, the European Union and USA come in mainly through sea ports in Benin Republic and Togo through Ogun and Kwara States.
Smuggling through international airports is by offenders exceeding lawful limits of 200cigarettes and 50 medium-sized cigars as “duty free’’ items meant solely “for personal use’’. Their appeal is in their being regarded as prestigious and low in tar and nicotine contents.
A “boom’’ in duty free cigarettes has encouraged illicit “fake cigarettes’’ marketed by companies with dubious addresses in major Nigerian cities. Like fake pharmaceutical drugs, most fake cigarettes are manufactured outside Nigeria, sold at low prices, and may contain unapproved and harmful substances.
The data on the quantity of illicit trade in cigarettes is limited and often dated. Nigeria is said to spend 89.5 billion naira annually on tobacco consumption, most of which are illicitly traded and smuggled into the country. Likewise, some 5 million adults smoke cigarettes and expose 27 million others to harmful second-hand smoke, according to one estimate. Such figures are hard to verify, but they serve to illustrate both the health hazards to the population and the challenge in curtailing it.
They also raise other significant challenges, including the growth of organised crime syndicates who, as can be seen in many Latin American countries, promote bribery of government officials as well as, demoralise them by killing dedicated enforcement officers.
Where the trade is legal, smugglers circumvent paying taxes. This denies authorities valuable income for providing social services such as education, health clinics. In states heavily reliant on funds doled out from the federal purse, losses in revenues from tobacco tax sustain such dependency.
Nigeria is a signatory to the World Health Organisation’s “Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)’’. It has been operating with a law enacted in 1990. The new National Tobacco Control Bill will hopefully domesticate the WHO’s convention when it becomes law, although the tobacco lobby is known to be trying to influence its final outcome.
However, whatever the eventual fate of the legislation, the overriding health of the citizens must count higher than the commercial benefits of the tobacco manufacturers and the income derived from their being taxed.