Nigerian Kids – Prime Targets Of ‘Big Tobacco’ Farming, Smoking For Blood Money

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)

From child labour on Nigerian tobacco fields to luring of kids as replacement smokers, ‘Dotun Akintomide uncloaks how ‘Big Tobacco’ companies, for decades, have been able to keep children at the center of a blueprint that has helped sustain the multi-billion dollar industry against public backlash — the ruins of many generations.

Imperiling of minor smokers by Big Tobacco might have drawn a modicum of public attention, albeit the parallel that exists between it and the use of child labour on tobacco fields had somewhat remained evasive. It was an emotional discussion inspired by a brawl between a septuagenarian and a gangster at a local restaurant in Dopemu, Lagos that gave an inkling on why the entire vicious cycle of tobacco must target under-aged children.

The gangster — relatively in his early 20s had arrogantly puffed cigarette’s smoke, contaminating the air inside the packed restaurant and drawing the ire of everybody in the process. But the septuagenarian will not just wail like others, he instead reached for his phone threatening to alert the police for his immediate arrest, while insisting that smoking in public areas has been outlawed in the country. The atmosphere got heated up and others were forced to leave their meals to get hold of the smoker. He took to his heels after sensing everyone’s irritation at his uncivilized action.

As people gazed at the old man, admiring his bravery, he made some profound statements that emboldened his displeasure at tobacco as much as the young man’s unruly behaviour. “If adults and children working on tobacco leaves suffer from serious ailments without smoking it, what would become of the smokers themselves?” He asked, adding that “to tell you how toxic it is, animals don’t eat tobacco leaves.” After observing how people shook their head in obvious disbelief, he exclaimed again “they don’t, but humans do!”

He didn’t stop at that, he further revealed to The New Diplomat, how tobacco cultivation for over a century, had contributed to hopelessness, illiteracy, strange ailments and deaths among teenage children in Iseyin (where he claimed to have hailed from). His heart-wrenching narratives impelled The New Diplomat to embark on a tour of some tobacco planting communities.

“This is what we have been doing to survive; we help farmers to pluck and stack wet tobacco leaves for curing and also help in sorting out the dry leaves into different grades of quality before loading,” said 16-year-old girl, Shadiya Odunewu, who spoke circumspectly to The New Diplomat in the native Yoruba dialect of old Oyo.

Minors working on dry tobacco leaves in Ago-Are, Oyo State during school hours. (PHOTO: ‘Dotun Akintomide)

Tending to the dry tobacco leaves with bare-handed, unperturbed of the hazardous chemicals, Shadiya and three other colleagues confirmed they are indigenes of Ago Are. Feeling tensed as if they have been warned surreptitiously never to relate tobacco matters to anyone perceived to be an outsider in the trade, was no less a complete stranger.

Ago-Are, like many tobacco planting communities (Iseyin, Oke-Ogun, Tede, Irawo, Ofifi, enroute Shaki, a border town with Benin Republic, Nigeria’s western neighbour) is an area in the hinterland of Oyo State that has produced several generations of tobacco farmers since British American Tobacco (BAT), a product of the then colonial establishment in Nigeria berthed in 1912, decades before independence. Thus regrettably walks millions of Nigerians into an early grave either through the smoked cigarettes or by producing the tobacco leaves, of which those cigarette sticks derived from.

That aside, the trend that keeps producing a phenomenon many have infamously dubbed ‘children of tobacco’ is something Nigeria still lacks frontal initiatives to deal with at a time when the World Health Organization (WHO) had even declared tobacco as the second major cause of mortality in the world, killing about 6 million people every year with the figure projected to reach 8 million deaths yearly by 2030. The majority of the victims are expected to come from developing nations like Nigeria. Since Europe and other developed countries started kicking out Big Tobacco with some watertight measures, focus has shifted to Africa.

Similar to the ‘catch-them-young’ master plan deployed by Big Tobacco around the world to lure minors and make them smoke the sticks for life, thereby sustaining cigarette patronage, it was almost cast on stones that tobacco farmers will end up passing the trade to their children.

 Tobacco Children: A Generational Slavery

A middle aged tobacco farmer, who simply identified himself as Gbenro for fear of being sanctioned, recalled how he started going to tobacco farm with his late father at age five and never had the opportunity of being enrolled for primary education.

“For some of us in this community, we inherited tobacco farming from our fathers and it has become our major source of livelihood,” Gbenro said, as his nearly 10-year-old son looked on, paying rapt attention with wet tobacco leaves clutched to his hands.

When asked how long tobacco farming had lasted in the area, he said: “I may not be able to recall the exact period, but I know that my father inherited the trade from my grandfather and it was in the era when they were used to marrying many wives with the sole aim of having more children to work on tobacco farms just like the cocoa farms of those days in western Nigeria.”

Little wonder why companies must continue to keep children in the business, either in tobacco leaves’ production or in getting end consumers for the product and make it extremely difficult for the world to attain the milestone of a tobacco-free planet.

Last month, a 44-page report was released by Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) and Nigerian Tobacco Control Research Group (NTCRG) entitled: “Big Tobacco Tiny Targets”, exposing how British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) and other tobacco holdings in the country initiate school children into smoking. 

As chronicled in the report, “of the 221 schools surveyed, 193 (87%) had a tobacco point of sale (POS) within 100 metres of school premises and 127 (66%) of the 193 POS were within visible distance of the immediate school environment,” with strategic display of cigarettes next to confectioneries and candies to attract children and make them lose their innocence. The cross sectional survey conducted in five Nigerian cities of Ibadan, Kaduna, Enugu, Lafia and Lagos further explored the pattern which led to Nigeria having 370,000 (Tobacco Atlas report 2013) of her children using tobacco daily, a figure that must have skyrocketed four years after. No thanks to the direct targeting of children with flavoured cigarettes aided by illicit trade. It thus appears the knotty pattern used in attracting minors to smoking is no different from recruiting new generation of tobacco growers for the industry.

Whereas, for minors working on tobacco, hours spent on tobacco means time spent outside classroom attending to leaves that have dire environmental and health consequences: from pesticides exposure on farms to nicotine poisoning while handling the leaves and even the toxic carbon monoxide emitted while curing the leaves after stacking them in curing barns. This in itself summarizes the untold story of minors wasting away on tobacco fields, even without lighting a cigarette.

In abeyance to the National Tobacco Control Act 2015 which outlawed the targeting and involvement of under-aged children in tobacco related matters — production, marketing, advertising, sales and consumption. Minors are still being engaged either as hired labour or as children of tobacco farmers, not only to cultivate, stack and sort leaves, but also to partake in the highly exhausting tobacco leaves’ curing process, where temperature can go as high as 71°C depending on curing schedule with the intention of changing leaves’ colour and reducing chlorophyll content. This contributes to the aroma and smoothness of the smoked cigarettes, seen as a selling advantage for brands and a delight to smokers.

During the exhaustive process of curing tobacco leaves, temperature can go as high as 71°C

According to Gbenro who owns a curing barn, “curing tobacco leaves is like going to hell because of the intense heat that must be generated and we usually devote serious attention to the regulation of the humidity inside the barn to get the required yellow-coloured leaves.” In spite of his submission, children are still involved in the process which could go on for 3-4 days, joining adults to feed hardwoods into the fire chamber with the heat transferred through heat exchangers inside the curing barns, hence, generating the resultant drying effect on the stacked leaves.

Whilst the attending smoke rents the air for days, farmers alongside teenage children must stay around barn areas to monitor the curing proceedings, forcing many to eat and sleep in-between work schedule as they pay careful attention to the drying leaves. They mind any slight that could lead to a high loss margin which could get them demoted or delisted by the buyer, in this case BAT and its Nigerian subsidiary.

The curing process is usually so exhaustive that around some barns visited in Irawo, about 3 kilometers to Ago-Are (where BAT has its leaves buying store), some 5-inches holes were seen on rocks said to be used mainly for cooking as farmers keep eyes on activities in and around their curing barns. “The holes were drilled on the rock by the early tobacco farmers for pounding yams and cooking soups and people still use them till today.

“You see, this tobacco work can make farmers with their wives, children and hired labour sleep on farms for days and they always use that to cook their meals, using firewood,” said Ms. Folake Ogundina, who gleefully accepted to be a tour guide as she narrated the daily hurdles of locals, herself also oblivious of the sundry associated risks.

Relic of Big Tobacco ‘slavery’ in Western Nigeria (PHOTO: ‘Dotun Akintomide)

Suffice to say as locals manage to survive those daily hurdles, akin to what was experienced during the darkest days of slave era, nicotine poisoning, which has been said to be a causative factor of brain redundancy among growing children coupled with other risk factors, must have found a commonplace. Also, more worrisome is the fact that minors including adult farmers work without wearing any protective material to protect the body parts that come in contact with the leaves which implies that they transfer daily, nicotine and other toxic substances, directly from hand to mouth as they eat bare-handed, not minding the damaging effects on the skin. The ensuing catastrophe was better imagined.

Nicotine and Brain Damage in Minors 

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Generally, medical experts have said that the common implications of working on tobacco are severe and that the age of the individual and part of the process involved also determine the extent of the severity.

“All handlers of tobacco leaves, especially those who handle the green leaves, suffer from a sickness called green leaf sickness because of the physical contact and absorption of nicotine from the leaves. It presents the symptoms of nicotine poisoning and manifests as vomiting, diarrhoea and dizziness,” said Dr Eniola Cadmus, a consultant community physician, University College Hospital, Ibadan. She explained that due to heavy use of pesticides during cultivation, many people also suffer from symptoms suggestive of pesticide poisoning such as respiratory problems (difficulty breathing) which may trigger asthmatic attacks in those who are susceptible as well as neurological problems. “In the long term, pesticide poisoning may lead to cancers, reproductive health problem and depression. Lastly, because of long hours spent in the sun, individuals may suffer from dehydration and heat stroke. By and large, these symptoms are worse for children,” she stated.

Dr Cadmus, who is also a member of the Nigerian Tobacco Control Research Group (NTCRG), further confirmed that “nicotine causes neurological deficits and are highly toxic to the brain, especially the developing brains of adolescents and children.” Her expert’s submission on the deadly nicotine which aids the addictive tendency in cigarette becomes more disturbing, considering the fact that Nigeria has a prevalence rate of 18.1% of teenage children between age 13-15 taking to smoking, according to Global Adults Tobacco Survey (GATS) country report on Nigeria, no less the life-long implications for the thousands of kids wasting away on tobacco fields in a 21st century slavery pattern without necessarily smoking the cigarettes whose primary raw material (tobacco leaves) they toil daily to produce, missing out on education among other child rights.

In spite of BAT often denying the involvement of children in tobacco activities, Ms. Ogundina revealed, saying “a 15-year-old girl who used to follow farmers to the farms said that the work doesn’t affect the hand, though some people used to say that the tobacco dust from dry leaves causes fever,” in a naïve submission that exposed BATN’s lack of commitment to educating farmers and children alike on health implications attached to working on tobacco field, having admitted that the content of their products poses damaging health risks to the consumers as much as it does to workers across various value chains of tobacco production. “Due to the dust that causes fever in children, they only allow children that have attained the age of 15 to work and they usually pay them,” she disclosed.

When asked how much is being paid to minor labour, she said, “the adult labour who help in sorting out leaves gets up to N500 (about $1.5) working for several hours daily, but I’m not sure of the amount paid to the children who are engaged in the work.”

Underaged kids stashing up wet tobacco leaves inside a curing ban in Ago-Are, Oyo state, Nigeria
Dry tobacco leaves after the curing process

Replying to The New Diplomat‘s enquiry through a mail, the Area Head, Corporate Communication, BAT, Abimbola Okoya, while claiming the company was presently investigating the matter, said, “We are committed to positive contributions to the economy and running our operations in a responsible manner and strongly advocate against the use of child labour.

“We are committed to ensuring adherence to the Tobacco Control Act and advocate against the use of child labour,” she added.

How Tobacco Exacerbates Poverty

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Having worked on those farms herself as hired labour, Ms. Ogundina confesses that tobacco has failed to bring prosperity to her community, while begrudging her involvement in tobacco hard labour which she started at age 17. She argued that the establishment of BATN foundation to help farmers as claimed by the company, tobacco’s business has not brought meaningful development to the area and its people.

Also, tobacco usage which is synonymous to poverty is higher among people with primary education or at worst illiterates at a figure put at 17% by GATS Country Report 2013, with North West having the highest percentage of smoked tobacco users in the country at 92.2%. Over the years, the cost and social implications of managing tobacco-related ailments and deaths have thrown people out of jobs and led to redundancy, breeding widespread poverty among the populace. 

Admitting that tobacco industry poses a serious challenge that must be dealt with decisively by the government, the Branch Head, Tobacco Control Unit (TCU), Department of Public Health, Federal Ministry of Health, Dr M.T. Malau said: “the fight in the control of tobacco has been ongoing, though it’s usually met with resistance both from the industry and the front groups just for selfish reasons; because of the economic gain, they consider monetary income more important than health matters, but government will not take that lightly.”

On the impoverishment of tobacco farmers, Malau noted that Nigeria’s health ministry has been working closely with WHO and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)  to discuss and address some of the challenges. “We have discovered that tobacco farmers are being held hostage by tobacco companies, they give them all these small incentives, but at the end of the day they just go back home with nothing. One of our resolutions is to quickly, within the shortest time, bring them out of these tobacco growing territories. So in the next couple of years we’re developing a plan with the federal ministry of agriculture whereby we can do a thorough mapping of all tobacco growers in the country to know where they’re, to know their acreage and to know the yield they produce as well as their income; so with that we can do an alternative programme for them to roll into and be won out of this. No matter the income you get from working on tobacco farms, you spend more in taking care of your health,” he said. 

The National Tobacco Control Act and Industry Sabotage

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Although, the National Tobacco Control Bill passed by the National Assembly after years of ‘powerful’ blockage was hurriedly signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, days to his handing over to the incumbent administration, it was a hollow victory to many anti-tobacco advocates as the regulatory framework was missing in the Act making implementation difficult.

Dr. Malau hinted that, the unprovided “regulatory framework should have gave clear guidance on how to implement the Act itself and to interpret the ambiguous parts, detailing various functions expected of all collaborating agencies in enforcing a stringent measure against tobacco in Nigeria.” The drawbacks, he said, has made the law ineffective with no recorded case of companies being penalised for infractions since over two years of approving the law. Forcing another plan to introduce afresh a tobacco regulation draft, complimenting the Act at a later date to the National Assembly, will again be at the mercy of serious politicking and powerful lobbying from interest groups as tobacco companies buy more time and continue to make blood money in a market portrayed as free-for-all.

In Nigeria, the amount spent by tobacco industry in lobbying powerful public officials and creation of strategic political relationship is yet to be ascertained; but in the USA, with all of its sophistication and well-grounded institutions, over $26 million was spent on tobacco lobbying in 2012 with 23 tobacco companies employing 174 lobbyists, a report by The Tobacco Atlas had indicated.

Similarly, in August 2017, the British government officially launched an investigation into allegations of corruption at BAT, following a 2015 BBC programme which exposed how BAT employees allegedly bribed officials in East African countries including Rwanda and Burundi in an effort to undermine anti-smoking laws.

“The challenge is in implementing the National Tobacco Control Act because if the tobacco control is implemented to the fullest, all these problems would be controlled. The minors have always been our concerns, because they are the most vulnerable victims. The farmers, women and poor citizens within the communities are also vulnerable in the hands of the tobacco industry. And that’s why the National Tobacco Control law, particularly in sections 26 and 38 of the Act, addresses those challenges.” Malau stated.

Calling on advocates against child labour practices to liberate minors working on tobacco fields, Malau noted that asides the National Tobacco Control Act, “the Child Rights Act itself is a defense and if they can invoke its powers, the children would be liberated from working on tobacco farms.” 

As far as the Head of Media and Campaign, ERA/FoEN, Mr. Philip Jakpor, was concerned, the brazen child abuse against Nigerian children witnessed in tobacco leaves’ production and strategic luring of minor smokers are intricate strategies that have kept tobacco industry in business for generations. “We have for years warned that the tobacco industry targeted kids as the older generation of tobacco growers die off in penury. Not only do they desire that kids get into the tobacco growing business, they also target them as replacement smokers as a new study in the Big Tobacco Tiny Targets Nigeria Report has shown. In doing this, the tobacco companies are unrelenting in evolving new tactics.”

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