‘Big Tobacco’ Sins: We Never Imagined How Far Tobacco Industry Could Go To Induce Kids, Says ERA/FoEN

Deputy Executive Director, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, Akinbode Oluwafemi

Recently, The New Diplomat published a report that exposes how tobacco industry for decades, had continued to abuse Nigerian children, targeting them to become the next generation of tobacco growers for the industry. While working on tobacco leaves bare-handed as witnessed in several tobacco planting communities visited in Oyo state, minors get exposed to nicotine, pesticides and other hazardous substances that cause green leaf sickness and cancer among other deadly ailments. According to several medical researches conducted on tobacco, brain redundancy was identified as the worst health predicament prevalent among children and adolescents working on tobacco. In this exclusive interview, Deputy Executive Director, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), MR AKINBODE OLUWAFEMI spoke with ‘DOTUN AKINTOMIDE on the intricacy that exists between widespread child labour activities on Nigeria’s tobacco fields-cum-other anti-labour practices and the luring of kids to smoking to sustain cigarette sale detailed in a report entitled: “Big Tobacco Tiny Targets” released in October, 2017 by ERA/FoEN in collaboration with Nigerian Tobacco Control Research Group (NTCRG). He also disclosed his organization’s efforts to halt attempts by powerful tobacco lobbyists aimed at circumventing tobacco control regulations in Nigeria.


From The New Diplomat‘s findings, the luring of kids into tobacco farming and hard labour, as well as the inducement of minors to smoking by strategically displaying cigarette next to confectioneries and candies making children lose their innocence are like intertwined strategies which have been at the center of the industry’s sustainability plan for years in Africa. How do you reconcile these two tactics?

It’s a very sad development when you look at the findings of the research. When we went to the field to find out whether they do market to children. We never expected the scale and the scope of our discovery. Tobacco industry do carefully targets the youths because they need them as replacement smokers. The older smokers will die and if they don’t recruit new smokers, they will run out of business. But we never imagined that they could place their products around our schools in a very orchestrated, carefully planned and well executed manner. In some cases, the bags with which they pack these tobacco products are exactly the same across states, so you know that this isn’t just happen-chance, because somebody somewhere knew that those children will go to those places to buy pencils, books, candies and other things and they are placing tobacco products near those items so that they can be induced. It’s a sad commentary on an industry that once in a while will lie and say they don’t market to the children, but we can confidently say that they are marketing to our children and to our youths in Nigeria.

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 You have done a lot of work exposing the situation on tobacco farms. Can you relate some of your findings to what The New Diplomat discovered in its investigation?

We have been raising alarm about how children are being used on those farms and they have issued denials severally in years past. It’s also sad that the report and your findings independently, confirmed that such practices are still on going. Using children on tobacco farms subjects them to a lot of illnesses that are tobacco related. Apart from the fact that these kids that are supposed to be in school are not, they are denying them the education, as well as inflicting them with ailments. Tobacco companies must be made to answer to all these practices that are happening between them and their contractors because some of those farmers are actually tobacco companies’ contractors. They are growing those products and they even own those farms and call them their farms (tobacco farmers), so they should also own up to every infraction and be held accountable for all the practices happening on those tobacco farms.

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Kid exposed to toxic nicotine while working on wet tobacco leaves around Ago-Are, Oyo State, Nigeria (PHOTO: 'Dotun Akintomide)
Kids exposed to toxic nicotine while working on wet tobacco leaves around Ago-Are, Oyo State, Nigeria where the tobacco giant, BAT has its leaf collection centre (PHOTO: ‘Dotun Akintomide)

How about the regular argument by tobacco companies that they can only regulate some of the ill practices but can’t out-rightly stop them, since they are not the direct employers of tobacco farmers, as such they wouldn’t want to own up to child labour and other anti-labour activities witnessed on tobacco fields. Do you think that’s the case?

I think that’s a lie, some of those tobacco farmers are directly on contract farming for the tobacco companies. If I’m a contractor to you, you have a lot of responsibilities on what I do and on whatever you have asked me to do for you. The tobacco companies themselves have also said that they are organizing anti-child labour campaign so, how much of that have they done with these tobacco farmers? How much are they paying for the tobacco leaves to ensure that the farmers themselves can pay for the hired labour? Because what’s going on is that the farmers are using children as cheap labour on tobacco farms and that has to do with how tobacco companies are pricing tobacco leaves and we also raised an alarm on that. The tobacco companies are engaging these farmers almost in a slave circle. They give them loans, fertilizers, woods and at the end of the day they take the leaves to their leaf collection centre. Tobacco companies dictate the price and the farmers are not getting a better deal from the companies for cultivating tobacco. The farmlands cannot be for the farmers alone to farm and that’s why they have resulted to those kids. It becomes a chain and that chain has to be unbundled and whoever is guilty should be made to face the music.

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British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) as the largest tobacco brand in the country has been accused of perpetuating unsafe and anti-labour practices against workers across value chain of tobacco production. From farmers and labourers wasting away daily, while working on the highly toxic tobacco leaves to factory workers that must handle the arduous task of producing the smoked cigarette’s sticks, the Nigerian Tobacco Control Group (NTCRG) and your organization (ERA/FOEN) have condemned the tobacco manufacturer for lacking recourse to standard health and safety practices leading to deaths and ailments among workers. In spite of these infractions, government has done little to curtail the excesses of the company. Is BATN bigger that the laws of the land or is it a case of the vicious cycle of tobacco making the tobacco giant untouchable?

Our role as civil society is to serve as watch dog so as to alert the government. We have written severally to the ministry of labour. We raised an alarm about the anti-labour practices of BATN. We did that after we discovered that some of the workers even at Ibadan were manifesting terrible ailments and when they manifest those diseases, they get sacked. And some of those workers spoke to us and we were able to confirm from the documents that they were certified fit before they joined BATN. But having worked for many years, they have some of these tobacco related ailments. Our responsibility then was to trigger an alarm and asked government to go and check what’s going on at BATN. We will continue to do our best to hold them accountable. We are in court because this is not a banana republic. We have laws in this country. So we will continue to explore the laws of this land to rein them in and make them account on whatever practices or infringements they’ve committed against our nation. The workers are in court. They are trying to seek redress and we will continue to explore all those options to ensure that no company comes to Nigeria and continue to flout our laws, dehumanize our people and again exploit them by selling to them a product that causes diseases and death. So it’s double jeopardy and I will agree with you that government is not doing as much as it ought to do, but we will continue to mount pressure on government to rise up to the occasion. This is a corporation that is harming our people and also harming our economy. For example, we are in court on the issue of export expansion plan that the British American Tobacco (BAT) benefitted under the Obasanjo regime. They have just established this through their findings confirming to our cries of over six years at a House of Representatives’ panel that they truly did benefited from the export expansion plan. While they were causing harm to our people, our government was still granting them tax incentives. We think that Nigerians should rise up and urge the government to do what’s right. And that’s why we will continue to mobilise people to show them the dangers of smoking and the opportunities in quitting smoking, as well as other infractions committed by that organisation in the business of promoting tobacco addition.

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In November 2016, seven aggrieved ex-staff of BATN (majorly in their 30s) at a press conference in Lagos exposed the various anti-labour practices alleged to have been the causative factor of sundry strange ailments they contacted while working at the company’s Ibadan factory. Having followed up on the court case instituted against the tobacco manufacturer to get their severance package/compensation claims for damaged health, The New Diplomat was told one of them had died last year due to lack of money to seek proper medical attention abroad over his worsened health condition. Have you seen any collaboration between the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the National Union For Food and Tobacco Employees (NUFTE) to address the plights of these sickly ex-staff of BATN?

To be frank, our collaboration with NLC has not yielded fruits but we will continue to try. In fact, if the NLC has taken the issues of the workers seriously, it won’t have taken that long for those workers to get justice. If the NLC chapter in that company has taken the youths seriously, it won’t have taken us to make noise for too long before they changed the nose masks of the workers. We knew what happened at Ibadan factory, how BATN dismantled an old factory equipment in UK, shipped them into the country and mounted them at the factory without them being tropicalized. When it’s time, we will do a detailed report on what really happened. As for the NLC, I wish they could have performed better and not only on salaries and wages concerns alone, but on issues relating to the welfare and health of the Nigerian workers. Like BATN has done, we have also seen several companies terminating workers’ employment without severance emoluments. The NLC should rise beyond agitating for workers to get salaries alone, rather should also be interested in what’s going on in the entire work place itself. If you have a company that is manufacturing a deadly product in the first instance and also operating in an environment that’s not safe. That makes it a double jeopardy. We have promising Nigerians and graduates falling sick in their early and late 30’s. NLC and the Minister of labour should take up this matter seriously and act in a very coherent manner to address the on-going malice. Many reports have been done about their production plants, yet they have not seen the light of the day. We won’t get tired. Just like what we are doing on BAT’s export expansion plan, one day those reports will see the light of day.

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It’s over two years since the National Tobacco Control Act was signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan, May 2015, following its passage by the National Assembly. What’s your appraisal of the Act’s implementation so far? Has anything changed?

The progress is slow but there has been progress. We now have a tobacco control law and we are looking at how to work with government to begin the enforcement. There was a major training that happened weeks ago where we had almost all the law enforcement officials present and the training afforded them the opportunity of knowing their roles and responsibilities. We are happy to hear from them saying that was the first time we had a platform where the civil society sat down with government to look at how to move forward a particular law that has to do with public health. There’s need for the regulations aspect of the law, which are in the works. The most interesting thing is that the Minister of Health came out in 2017 to say that they will begin the enforcement of key nine provisions of the law and we are collaborating with them to ensure that that is done. We are collaborating with several government agencies concerned with the enforcement of the law and not only with the Ministry of Health. I think that with this, this year we are going to see some improvements in the enforcement of the law. I’m optimistic.

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You mean without the yet-to-be approved drafted regulations by the National Assembly to aid implementation process?

It’s not every section of the law that needs the regulation. There are several sections that do not need a new regulation. For example, the ban on the sale of single cigarette’s stick; the ban on sale to minors; the aspect that addresses tobacco’s advertisement, sponsorship and promotion; and a whole lot of other provisions in the law doesn’t need the regulation. I think we can start with those ones first, while we are also working on those regulations.

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Philip Morris has been in the news lately. The company is also reportedly targeting Nigeria. Any reason for that?

Philip Morris is back in Nigeria as Philip Morris Nigerian limited. They have high stakes as an international tobacco company now operating in Ilorin (Kwara state). The company was manufacturing tobacco from Senegal and importing to Nigeria, but has now established its full presence in Nigeria. The reason being that we are 180 million people with very weak laws and so they think that Nigeria is a market to be for their products. It’s left to us as a people and for the government of Nigeria to ensure that the country is no more a dumping ground for rejected products and to tell the multinationals that the government in Nigeria can protect the Nigerian people just like any other government in the world. What we need is to ensure that the National Tobacco Control Act becomes fully implemented to force a drastic reduction in smoking. Once that is being done, some of those companies will begin to look elsewhere to market their products.

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What is the tobacco industry doing that is not in the news?

Tobacco companies do not want anything to be in the news. One of the things that worries me is the rate at which the industry is now trying to muzzle the press from reporting tobacco control issues. When Lagos state passed its anti-smoking laws, suddenly there were adverts by the industry explaining what the laws were all about. The adverts were actually meant to confuse the public about what the laws were all about and what they weren’t all about. The adverts talked about where you can now smoke and never discouraged people from smoking, instead it exposed to the people, the loopholes in the Lagos state anti-smoking laws. Similarly, we have heard Philip Morris is now embarking on the so-called training of journalists for a supposedly smoke-free world targeted at making journalists promote its electronic cigarette machines and other so-called new products they are inventing. They are basically diverting the attention of the media from reporting how they have been promoting their products; how they have been undermining government policies; from reporting issues that you have dug out such as child labour and marketing strategies to lure our youths. It is a dangerous trend that the media needs to wake up to and see the deceptions in between the line. And being a media professional myself, it’s often very sad to see them targeting high valued media people for those trainings. You see people like editors, managing directors, ex-publishers who form some of the public relations agencies they are using from Nigeria up to Kenya. It’s a sad trend. We are watching and monitoring them, so we will continue to expose them in the media. The media is a very large space now, though they have huge money, but we are on a high moral pedestal and we believe we also have like minds in the media all the time. We want to put the interest of the people and public health above whatever pecuniary gains the tobacco industry is offering them to continue to market their products. That’s what is going on. The Industry’s attempt to undermine laws are being under-reported absolutely; marketing to kids as you have said are being under-reported. We think the media needs to do serious investigation. It takes the international media to report some of these issues happening in Africa. Like the BBC’s investigation last year (which exposed how BAT allegedly bribed public officials in East Africa with an attempt to undermine smoking laws). There was another story by the Guardian of London (revealing how threats were issued to African governments trying to implement stringent measures against tobacco). The African media needs to take ownership of this by doing serious investigative reports on tobacco industry’s ill practices on our continent and exposing that to the world. I will love to see more of that.

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Can you unveil some very powerful tobacco connections; perhaps, pro-tobacco cartel sabotaging tobacco control efforts in the country?

For now we are doing a lot of research, we don’t just go to town until we get our facts and figures. We know there are powerful lobbyists in government and at the National Assembly, but we will continue to look at it. When the time is right, we will name names and shame them too. We are not scared of doing that. We have done that before and we will do it over again.

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READ RELATED INVESTIGATION: Exposed! Nigerian Children: Prime Targets Of ‘Big Tobacco’ Farming, Smoking For Blood Money


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