Tobacco lobby thwarts anti-smoking law in Nigeria

KADUNA, Nigeria, May 14 (UPI) -- At 27, Lanre Lawal seemed to have a bright future. He had distinguished himself as a fine student with a degree in civil engineering. For the young man from Osun state in southwestern Nigeria, a promising job with a good income was almost certain.

But Lanre’s joy was short lived. One day he slumped to the floor and was rushed to the hospital. That was in 2007. He died three months later from lung cancer.

Peter Oguns, Lawal's childhood friend, said Lawal had been a regular smoker since their secondary school years.

“There’s nothing I didn’t do to try to stop him from smoking but he wouldn’t listen," Oguns said. "He was so addicted that he smoked at least 10 sticks a day."

Lawal is one of many Nigerian young people who have struggled with tobacco addiction. Despite the danger tobacco poses, the federal government has yet to sign into law a wide-ranging act which will regulate the sale and advertising of tobacco products and restrict where people are allowed to smoke People under the age of 18 won't be allowed to buy cigarettes, and health warnings will have to cover at least 50 percent of the packaging. All forms of tobacco advertisements, sponsorships, promotions and endorsements will be banned.

In July 2009, over 40 civil society groups, lawyers and public health advocates stormed the National Assembly in the capital, Abuja, to demand that the Nigerian legislature to sign the National Tobacco Control Bill into law. The bill had been brought before the Assembly five months earlier, but it took more than two years before lawmakers finally approved it. Since March 2011, the bill has been awaiting ratification by the federal government.

Nigeria is at serious risk of President Goodluck Jonathan does not ratify the bill, said Tola Oyebode, a doctor and a member of one of the protest groups.

"I see people die every day from tobacco addiction," Oyebode said.

That experience drove Oyebode to form an organization dedicated to getting the bill ratified. The bill, once enacted, could dramatically reduce the number of tobacco-related deaths in Nigeria, he said.

Nigeria is one of the largest markets for tobacco products in Africa. About 13 million Nigerians are smokers, and about 17 billion cigarettes are produced in the country each year, Oyebode said.

Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase in the number of smokers, he said. About 7 million cigarettes are smoked each day.

The bill hasn't been enacted because of pressure from tobacco lobbying groups, Oyebode said.

“I am convinced that these lobbying groups benefit a lot from the proliferation of tobacco in the country," he said.

Government officials did not respond to repeated requests to comment on these allegations. Members of the National Assembly have also been unwilling to publicly account for the delay. One assemblyman, who only agreed to speak if his name was withheld, confirmed that the tobacco lobby has weakened the government’s resolve to introduce effective legislation.

“Nigerian government officials lack the required understanding of the methods used by the tobacco industry to influence government policies and legislation,” the assemblyman said. “What we all know is that the tobacco companies have (heavily) infiltrated the decision of the government”.

Akinbode Oluwafemi, a speaker at a recent forum organized by the Coalition Against Tobacco, argued that lobbying groups are taking deliberate steps to influence the government.

“I am dismayed that there is an alleged clandestine move by tobacco lobbyists to compromise our lawmakers with the intent of thwarting the passage of the National Tobacco Control Bill," he said in an interview. "How else can you explain our law makers' foot-dragging on the bill nearly one year after the public hearing?”

Western tobacco firms are among those applying pressure, said Isidore Obot, executive director of the Centre for Research on Information on Substance Abuse, at a forum.

Stringent anti-tobacco laws in the west have turned those companies' attention to sub-Saharan Africa, Obot said, and Nigeria is considered the "jewel" in the tobacco business.

Tobacco-related health problems are worse in Nigeria, he said, because the tobacco content of the cigarettes sold in the country is higher than in those sold in western nations.

Joseph Bulus, a doctor, said tobacco kills about half of its lifetime users. About 70 million people died worldwide as a result of smoking between 1950 and 2000, and it’s estimated that over the next 50 years, 450 million may die because of tobacco use. Most of those deaths will be in developing countries.

Adamu Mukhtar is from northern Nigeria, but for the past 20 years has lived in Lagos, Nigeria's most populous city.

Mukhtar not only smokes tobacco, but also Indian hemp. Speaking in broken English laden with his local Hausa dialect, he said smoking makes him forget his troubles and relax. He has become so addicted that hardly a day passes without him finishing at least six packets of 20 cigarettes each.

The thick-set, balding auto mechanic has a typical attitude toward smoking.

“Whether I smoke or not, I will still die," he said. "Everybody will die of something. If tobacco kills me, so be it”.