Monday, June 16, 2008

Tobacco: The party is over

MOODS were just beginning to ascend on an expectant day when the wicked drizzles set in on the finely-laid streets of Abuja. At the Millennium Park, a group of tobacco control activists that love to lampoon the tobacco industry quickly asserted, tongue in cheek, that the desperate industry's spin doctors must have consulted a rainmaker to mar the event, the official flag off of the ban on smoking in public places in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), May 31.

But if the awesomely fabled rainmaker with his trademark all-white beards and faded animal skin pouch, heavy with mischievous cowries, were honest, he would admit his was a failed rain-conjuring mission, for the drizzle soon gave way to a sunny, historic day. Soon, the city stood with bated breath to watch what was to become the most significant event in tobacco control history in Nigeria: Abuja taking the lead in joining the prestigious league of major capitals and cities across the world to declare its public places smoke-free.

The starting-off rally would awe even the venerable rainmaker. Dr. Aliyu Modibbo Umar, the six-footer minister of the FCT, and the brain behind the ban, towered above tobacco control activists, government officials, students, banner-bearing youths, and several others numbering over 5,000 as they matched solemnly, a la funeral procession, from the Millennium Park to the Eagle Square. While the dispatch riders led the procession, blaring sirens, a truck followed from the rear, carrying the gigantic effigy of a cigarette stick, fast burning out, and a group of youthful mascots perched at the truck's rear, swung rhythmically to an inaudible dirge. At the Eagle Square, a coterie of speeches and performances before a high profile audience and the invocating of the Tobacco Control Act of 2004 put the final nail on the coffin of the public nuisance.

So, with the Abuja declaration, it has become illegal to smoke in such public places around the FCT as offices, schools, public transports, elevators, parks, stadiums, and most significantly, restaurants and bars. (The Act, drafted by the Federal Ministry of Health and signed into law since 2004, has never been enforced until now). Now, fresh air can come the way of bartenders, innocent bystanders who are victims of Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) or passive smoking, persons inhaling the smelly liabilities from hardened puffers and who get sick or even die from smoking-related diseases.

The May 31 event is much more significant, not only because it coincided with the World No Tobacco Day celebration observed globally, but because it shows a vital government entity throwing its heavy weight behind activists, doctors and health workers' who have wailed over time that tobacco is a modern evil flame that must be systematically put out. It adds to the feathers of the Federal Government and four state governments which last year dragged tobacco companies in the country to court to account for the sickening and systematic killing of Nigerians over the years through deceptive marketing tactics.

It contrasted sharply with the 'generosity' of the last administration which not only invited some tobacco multinationals here, but spoon-fed them with generous tax waivers among other incentives. The event, no doubt, will constitute the beginning of the end of the dominance, lies and the habitual and vicious manipulation of truth by the tobacco industry in our country.

Since the 1970s, the heat has been turned on tobacco in the Western world considering its now medically proven devastation on individuals' health as well as economic costs. Through huge taxation, libel suits and strict business legislation, tobacco companies in places like the USA and United Kingdom are bleeding to death. For instance, through a libel suit in the 1990s, brought by 49 states in the USA against Philip Morris and other tobacco manufacturers, the companies have been forced to pay damages amounting to $256 billion over a 25-year period.

That Master Settlement Agreement as it is now called, remains a fatal blow to their illegal business. Elsewhere are myriad of litigation from individuals. Smoking has also gone down drastically in the West. These multinationals have therefore turned their business focal lenses on third world countries as a recouping ground, and Nigeria, with its huge economic prospects and weak tobacco control legislation, have since become a big pie. In the last 10 years, a plethora of American and British tobacco multinationals has invaded the country accompanied with a flurry of high profile events and publicity stunts. Musical shows, fashion events, cinema shows among several others have also been as recruitment grounds for young persons who will in turn become long-term customers, helplessly stuck to the stick through the addictive power of nicotine.

But now, the truth has come home to roost. Nigerians know better than they ever thought. Nigerians can no longer tolerate an industry that esteems profits over humanity, that parades a product that turns its customers into walking chimneys, and educated, refined men into living dead; a product that saps family finances, deprives family members of good food and ultimately kills their bread winners, a flaming stick that extinguishes the dreams of youths through avoidable, terminal illnesses including cancers of the lungs, of the cervix, respiratory diseases, heart disease, emphysema, kidney ailments and several others.

Yes, it is an established fact; Tobacco does no single good to the body. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), every year, it kills 5.5 million people globally, most of them in their prime, and 70 per cent in developing countries. By 2030, the figure is expected to jump to 10 million annually. It is the leading preventable cause of death in the world today and the only 'legal' consumer product that kills about a half of those who use it as intended by its manufacturers, with its victims dying on average of 15 years prematurely.

The China case is very instructive. The Asian Tiger's government decided to take the bull by the horn in recent years after it was discovered that tobacco-related diseases kill one million Chinese every year. About 68 per cent or 350 million of its 1.3 billion total population are active smokers. Today, China has one of the toughest anti-tobacco legislation in the world. Even here in Africa, the high rate of casualties has driven countries like Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa to declare their cities smoke-free.

Yet, in the face of the toll tobacco takes on humanity, this industry has never relented in their efforts to perpetuate the evil trade. And that is exactly why, in the wake of tobacco litigation and renewed anti-tobacco fight last year which threw Nigeria into a protracted international limelight, the tobacco firms here rose up to their trademark manipulation of truth. We have been inundated with media articles, some parading fictitious names and equally fictitious organisations, pointing out to us why tobacco is the best thing that ever happened to mankind, and why Nigerians deserve to roast themselves to death. It is nothing other than the work of their team of spin doctors, paid scribes and hatchet men.

But no matter how they manipulate the truth, the fact remains that for them, the party is over. If the Western public and governments would wake to the reality that tobacco does not belong in modern life, and give it an aggressive push, Nigerians will bury it on this vibrant Sub-Saharan soil. What transpired in Abuja is only a shadow of even greater affront against this evil in this land of greatness. Raised taxes on tobacco packs and the industry, ban of sale-by-stick, comprehensive advertisement ban, all in line with the provisions of the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Convention (to which Nigeria is a signatory) will all soon follow, naturally. Their arsenal of lies and deception, like that of the failed rainmaker's pouch, will soon be exhausted.