In the year 2003, over 140 countries converged in Geneva, Switzerland under the auspices of the World health Organisation (WHO) to enact the first global public health treaty – WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).

The aim was to establish guidelines that would serve as the basis for controlling global tobacco consumption and the associated tobacco-related diseases and deaths. Today, over 170 countries including Nigeria are signatories to this treaty.

The components of the FCTC include; taxation on tobacco products that is continuously adjusted to the annual inflation rate, smoke-free public places, health education about the health damaging effects of tobacco smoking and second hand smoke, health warnings on tobacco products-to include pictures or pictograms on cigarette packages, ban on advertisement, promotion or sponsorships by tobacco companies, regulation of tobacco products, tobacco products disclosures, provision of viable economic alternatives to tobacco farmers e.t.c

The domestication of the WHO FCTC by most developed countries to protect their citizens from the harmful effects of tobacco, has translated to marked reduction in tobacco consumption in these countries. The effect of which is the migration of tobacco companies to developing countries where there is no effective legislation to curb their activities.

The single most effective way of controlling tobacco use in any country is through increased taxation of tobacco products. The massive influx of the said industry into developing countries like Nigeria is largely due to the relatively weaker taxation on tobacco in comparison to developed countries. Increased taxation leads to an increase in the price of cigarettes, making it less affordable to the youths and the poor, who are most sensitive to price changes and are also worst hit by tobacco-related diseases.

In Nigeria, a pack of cigarettes goes for about N200 compared to about seven pounds (N1750) in the United Kingdom. Therefore, cigarettes are readily available and affordable to the youths and the poor, who lack the financial wherewithal to treat tobacco-related diseases.

An effective legislation to protect Nigerians from the harmful effects of second hand smoking is lacking. As a result, the whole population including pregnant women and children are still at risk of the health hazard associated with second hand smoking. The Federal Capital Territory (Abuja) and Osun state made some effort to enact smoke-free legislation sometimes in the past. While this is quite encouraging, emphasis should be placed on the enforcement of this legislation in these regions in order to achieve the desired goal.

Furthermore, strategic and effective tobacco control communication is deficient in Nigeria. The level of awareness about the dangers of tobacco smoking, particularly second hand smoking is very low.

Though, the government has been able to compel the tobacco industry to increase the size of  the health warnings on cigarette packs to about 30% of the surface of the pack, this has not significantly translated to the dissuasion of smokers from smoking.

The tobacco industry is still involved in some promotional and sponsorship activities.

Smokers willing to quit cannot get professional help, as tobacco dependence treatment clinics are yet to be established.

Also lacking is a National body that regulates the composition of tobacco products and tobacco industry foreclosures to ensure that tobacco products meet up with international standards.

Government’s assistance to tobacco farmers to aid crop diversification and enable them to switch to the cultivation of other economically viable alternatives has been grossly inadequate. Conversely, the tobacco industry gives huge technical assistance to these farmers in order to boost tobacco production in Nigeria.

Summarily, one can say that Nigeria has not been successful in the implementation of the FCTC guidelines, but that would be totally untrue. On Tuesday 18th March 2011, the Nigeria Senate passed the Nigeria National Tobacco Control Bill (the domesticated version of the FCTC guidelines in Nigeria) into law, after over two years of delay. Though as of the time of this writing, the bill still awaits reconciliation in the House of Representatives and subsequently the presidential assent, the passage of the bill by the senate marks the real beginning of tobacco control in Nigeria.

Kudos should be given to the stakeholders that worked assiduously to ensure the implementation of this bill. However, they should continue to ensure that the full implementation and enforcement of the bill effectively translates to a decline in the smoking population and also in tobacco-related diseases and deaths in Nigeria. Also, they should be ready to resist all efforts by the tobacco industry to nullify the benefits of the passed bill.

In conclusion, every year about 5 million people die globally from tobacco consumption and 600,000 from exposure to second hand smoke. Statistics would remain just numbers until a neighbour, friend or relative gives it a human face. The Nigeria Senate has taken the huge step of saving Nigerians from the tobacco epidemic by passing the tobacco control bill into law. However, this gain should be concretized by the House of Representatives, who are presently being awaited to reconcile this bill and subsequently forward it for presidential assent before the expiration of the current political dispensation.

Dr. Olusegun Owotomo
                                    Lagos, Nigeria.

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