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Nigeria takes on tobacco companies

I’ve blogged before about the challenges of tobacco control in Nigeria. The fact is that with the increasing effectiveness of anti-smoking policies in the Western world, the tobacco companies with their usual level of sophisticated and not-always-ethical marketing have turned their attention to developing countries. With Nigeria’s huge population, it’s not surprising that it has been one of the targets- witness the lavish music concerts, fashion shows and glamorous events sponsored by various cigarette manufacturers in the last few years.

There has always been a sense of challenge in relation to tobacco control in Nigeria. Not long into his first term in office, President Obasanjo was guest of honour at the official opening of a large British American tobacco factory in Ibadan, an event that was hailed as a triumph of the search for foreign investment in the country, with the jobs that were created. Yet there was little mention of the huge health costs that could result from this, and the weighing up of costs and benefits. The factory was apparently opened following the closure of a smaller one in Ghana

Similarly I’ve heard of people who were jobless for a while after leaving university, finally getting a lucrative job with a tobacco company in Nigeria and have struggled with my personal feelings- to insist that they reject the job because of the damage that I know smoking can cause to public health or be relieved that they have finally got a job. But in the long run for the Nigerian society, the expansion of tobacco companies cannot be a good thing.

The history of Nigeria’s leaders and smoking is also interesting- Shehu Shagari was said to be an avid smoker, as is (was?) the current president Yaradua. Professor Olikoye Ransome Kuti who spearheaded the ban on smoking in public places and restrictions on advertising in the late 80s was also said to have been a chain smoker who quit smoking as a matter of principle on being appointed Minister of Health.

The recent news that the Nigerian government is suing the Big Three tobacco firms for 44 billion dollars for marketing to children and putting pressure on health services is certainly welcome news. Apart from serving as a warning shot across the hatches of the tobacco companies, it also raises awareness and debate about the hazards of smoking and the techniques that the tobacco companies have employed to grow their businesses. There is also the potential for a financial settlement which could, despite the skeptic assertions from some Western media pundits be applied towards improving the health of the Nigerian people.

While we wait for new developments in the case, the Nigerian government’s willingness to take on first Pfizer and then the tobacco companies in the law courts is admirable, even if only for its symbolism

Similarly, the launching of the Coalition Against Tobacco and the government challenging the setting up of a 9.6 trillion naira tobacco factory in the country are good signs and evidence that the government and the health ministry are willing to stand up to their responsibilities as a signatory to the Framework Convention for
Tobacco Control

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

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