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Nigeria’s faux anti-tobacco campaign

The hysteria that accompanies tobacco issues in Nigeria is particularly difficult to understand when viewed against the backdrop of developmental challenges that beset the country and its people on an ongoing basis. Take the case of Nigeria’s participation in the just-concluded Conference of Parties (COP7) and (COP22). While the former was on regulating tobacco use, the latter was on climate change. COP7 held in India; Nigeria was represented by officials of the Ministry of Health, Standards Organisation of Nigeria and members of the anti-tobacco campaign groups. President Muhammadu Buhari led Nigeria’s delegation to COP22, which was held in Morroco.

You can be forgiven if you imagine that Nigerians will all be dying from tobacco use in the not-too-distant future, while the impact of climate change is at best a diversionary issue that should not be accorded any importance, with the sound and fury that is the anti-tobacco campaign.

The impact of climate change in the country is profound. The milder impacts are seen in more regular and severe floods in areas that used not to experience flooding; prolonged drought and in the case of Nigeria, the disappearance of Lake Chad, with very damaging impact on habitat and livelihood of tens of millions of people living around the Lake Chad Basin. One of the consequences of climate change on Lake Chad is the strife over water and the consequent rise in terrorism among a people who were once considered agrarian and lovers of peace.

While tobacco use is reported to be responsible for six million deaths annually across the globe, and preventing these avoidable deaths is important, how do you stop the accelerating impact of climate change with its potentially dire consequences such as drought, famine, displacement and deaths of tens of millions of Nigerians?

When the theme of the recently-concluded COP7 was announced, there was optimism that the grave impact of illicit trade on youth access to tobacco and the underground trade in cigarettes fueling crime and terrorism, will receive much-needed attention. It turned out that the organisers could not hold themselves to the same standard that they prescribe for others. Deliberations and how conclusions were reached were made in the closet; invited journalists were literarily thrown out of the conference. Their participation in COP7 was limited to press conferences. If the organisers had nothing to hide, invited journalists ought to have been observers of the process and how decisions were reached.

Organisers accused journalists of colluding with tobacco companies to undermine their efforts. This allegation is in reaction to many journalists challenging the World Health Organisation and the anti-tobacco lobby on the several untested, unverified and sometimes false “facts” with which the WHO and tobacco lobby use to browbeat governments into toeing their line.

COP7 fell well short of globally accepted standards of openness, accountability and clarity. This was made worse by the Nigerian anti-tobacco groups, that were billed as supporting cast, but turned out to be accuser-in-chief of the Nigerian delegation to COP7.

While the conference was going on, these groups were busy churning out press releases besmirching the reputation of officials of the Standards Organisation of Nigeria and other government officials. Rather than argue the case against preventing journalists from attending the conference as the Nigerian delegation did, the anti-tobacco groups issued press statements widely published in the Nigerian press about Nigerian officials being on the payroll of tobacco companies. It is admirable that the Nigerian government officials stood for press freedom and public access to deliberations at COP7. It is, however, regrettable that the so-called champion of public good and accountability will support the repression of the media and embark on actions capable of eroding trust in public institutions and their officials.

The anti-tobacco group’s action at COP7 was all too familiar; rather than support Nigeria’s official delegation to the conference, they positioned themselves as the only group championing Nigeria’s interest.

Controlling information and haranguing anybody or organisation that does not agree with its views are the two main tactics the local anti-tobacco groups with their foreign sponsors deploy to control the agenda. Nigeria is currently ranked 145 out of about 190 countries in smoking rates, with Egypt, South Africa and many other African countries way ahead of Nigeria. Tobacco use in Nigeria is not as pervasive as you will find in the home countries of the foreign sponsors of the local anti-tobacco lobby. Yet there is a pressing and urgent need to make tobacco the number one issue in Nigeria, ahead of impact of climate change, lack of infrastructure and inadequate social services as well as corruption in public service delivery.

The dollar-denominated fund available to drive the anti-tobacco campaign is huge, attracting all sorts. That is why the anti-tobacco groups will not countenance a discussion on safer alternatives such as e-cigarette, or allow the media to see how, in their deliberations, they shut out any view that hints at challenging their orthodoxies.

  • Ogunlade is of the Centre for the Promotion of Enterprise and Business Best Practice, Wuse 2, Abuja.