Bayo, a commercial motorcycle rider (okadaman) who started smoking seven (7) months ago, does not know anything about the government and activists’ anti-smoking campaigns. Meanwhile, by the 23 of this month, government is supposed to roll out a new set of graphic health warnings to be displayed on cigarette packs. The extant warnings were issued in June 23, 2021 and occupy no less than 50% of the display areas. So how did Bayo miss these?
“The Federal Ministry of Health Warns that smokers are liable to die young” was the only warning imprinted on all cigarette packs. This was deemed too vague and lacking in depth. So in response to the ‘global tobacco epidemic’, the World Health Organisation, WHO, came up with a framework.
The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, WHO FCTC, “the first international treaty negotiated under the auspices of WHO”, was adopted by the World Health Assembly on May 21, 2003 but entered into force on February 27, 2005. Article 11 of this Framework recommends that parties to the convention should ensure that product packaging and labelling do not promote tobacco products and should carry pictorial and text warnings which clearly describe the health dangers associated with tobacco use. It stated that the warnings “should be 50% or more of the principal display areas.”
Nigeria domesticated the framework in the National Tobacco Control Act, 2015 and its Regulations of 2019. As noted in the first, second and third schedule of the 2019 Regulations, there will be rotation of the pictorial and text warnings. This is because the shock value of these graphic warnings might wane from long use. This is why this year, government is supposed to improve on the graphic health warning since the law supposedly prescribes a review after two years.
Activists and advocates are eagerly waiting for what the Federal Government has to offer. However, they are wary of the influence, capacity and reach of the tobacco industry. The industry, especially in Nigeria, has seemingly gone underground as their activities are now shrouded in mystery. A good example is Oke-Ogun in Oyo State, known for tobacco farming. However, with the anti-tobacco campaign, the farmers claimed to have gone into cultivation of others crops. But the confusion as to what they are planting and selling is a display of what the tobacco industry can do from afar.
On the one hand, the farmers say they are now planting yam and cassava, but that the produce were wasting away as there were neither storage facilities nor buyers. On the other, they claim ‘unknown persons’ fix the price for tobacco, while their customer, a big tobacco firm, claimed they no longer have dealings with Oke-Ogun farmers.
The most insidious of what the tobacco industry can do is the claim that they have a programme for farmers transitioning from tobacco farming to other crops. No evidence of the claim exists in Oke-Ogun when advocates on the platform of Corporate Accountability and Public Participation, CAPPA, visited. In fact, calls to ameliorate the health hazard these farmers have been exposed to have gone unheeded. Meaning the need for provision of substantial support for any tobacco farmer in transition with financial aid, affordable agricultural loans and/or insurance products might end as a wish.
To be fair, the Federal Government has been doing something about the campaign and enforcement of the policy. But the Ministry of Health need to intensify its collaboration with Consumer Protection Commission, CPC; the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, SON; the Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance, NTCA, and other government agencies and civil society organisations to maximise the opportunity provided by the launch of new graphic health warnings on cigarette packs. They need advocates that can reach the streets and rural areas for this campaign. For now, their activities seem restricted to the Federal Capital Territory, Lagos, Kano and Cross River states.
Even then, Bayo, the okadaman who leaves in Lagos, does not know about the campaign. He is illiterate and only sees the graphic health warnings on the packs without an appreciation of the message. “Until seven months ago I was smoking igbo (hemp). It was my then girlfriend that asked me to stop. So I took up cigarette.” Asked if the images and campaign against will make him stop, he said: “Maybe. But for now, until I make money, I will not stop.” So he runs through, at least, a pack each day.
Therefore, for the millions of Bayo, just launching a new set of graphic health warning is not enough. This is why June 23 is very significant. Will the Federal Government follow up the launch with a campaign strategy that resonates with smokers who take the images as decorations? Is there a means of feedback from smokers who quit or wish to quit? Will the enlightenment be left for advocates and rights groups? Any plan of action for pushback — overt or covert? Except appropriate answers are provided for these question in practical terms, the millions of Bayos will continue to smoke. And for each stick of cigarette they light, the tobacco industry wins.