For The Graphic Health Warning Policy, Delay Is Dangerous

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The decision of the Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) to call out SmokeBoxNG and DaSmokeHub, two popular tobacco vendors for marketing tobacco products on social media has put tobacco industry activities in Nigeria on the spotlight again.

Both organizations, operating from Lagos and Abuja were called out in CAPPA’s Report on Tobacco Industry Capture of the Virtual Space in Nigeria for engaging popular music icons in the promotion of tobacco products and an alternative lifestyle that kids may innocently believe is hype.

One of the most striking finds that informed the writing of the report is the sheer number of visibility engagements that the tobacco industry promotes online which of course, do not come cheap. This finding would seem to corroborate a report by the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) which noted that cigarette and smokeless tobacco companies spend billions of dollars each year to market their products.

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In the US alone, the largest cigarette and smokeless tobacco companies are said to have spent a mind-boggling $8.2 billion on advertising and promotional expenses in 2019.

While availability and veracity of data is still a big issue in Nigeria, it may not be out of place to conclude that the tobacco companies operating here also spend huge sums of money on their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities that are visible online and subtle marketing through their front groups.

The CAPPA report identified 226 of such visibility events in the virtual space in Nigeria in the period between 2016 and 2021 and goes on to make a strong argument for the current ban on Tobacco Advertising Promotion and Sponsorships (TAPS) to be enforced more rigorously in online spaces such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc where the tobacco industry currently enjoys a free rein.

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Through these channels they burnish their image and make tobacco products easily accessible to the underaged and the un-informed.

The findings do not preclude the fact that there are multidimensional efforts by the Nigerian government to arrest the tobacco menace in the country.

The Federal Government’s introduction of Graphic Health Warnings (GHWs) on tobacco products is still one of such novel initiatives that has drawn the acclaim of the public health community at home and abroad.

The policy which kicked off in November 2020 is believed to be good in many ways: Nigerian citizens, especially children are better educated on the dangers of tobacco, and the government can genuinely monitor the kinds of products being marketed in Nigeria.

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Under the new policy, tobacco packages must come with pictures and warnings that cover at least 50% of the front and back of the packages. Text-only health warning is also to be displayed on one of the lateral sides of the packages.

The warnings will be rotated every 24 months and will be increased to 60% in June 2024. Most laudable is the fact that the text of the new requirement replaces the former which only required manufacturers to inscribe the message: “The Federal Ministry of Health warns that smokers are liable to die young”. Tobacco products in Nigeria now come with messages such as “this product kills”, “this product causes cancer” etc, giving users and potential users information that can influence their decision making.

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The policy is in sync with the World Health Organisation (WHO) mandate to Parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to put in place policies to check the glamourization of cigarettes-cigartes or tobacco products.

The WHO argument is that a combination of pictures and texts is more effective than text only warnings for communicating the risk of smoking to adolescents to discourage smoking uptake.

But almost two years after the policy kicked off, the enforcement exercise has only taken place in Abuja and Lagos, with no sign on the horizon that enforcement in other parts of the country will begin soon. Most worrisome is the fact that while the Federal Ministry of Health is expected to take the lead in enforcing the policy, it is somewhat laid back. It is the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) that has taken the gauntlet in ridding Nigerian markets of the old tobacco packs and educating retailers and vendors on the penalties for flouting the law. Good as the FCCPC’s intervention is, for an industry that is always a step ahead of its regulators, the slow pace and lack of synergy in government enforcement presents an opportunity for tobacco companies to continue with business as usual. For this not to happen, agencies of government that must urgently wake up and be alive to their responsibilities include the Nigeria police, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS), among others
If Nigeria must checkmate the tobacco industry quest for the lungs of our kids, all hands must be on deck. This was the same message that the Federal Ministry of Health conveyed during penultimate week’s convening of enforcement stakeholders in Abuja where an implementation template was unveiled.

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But the public health community is no longer swayed by words. It is now time to walk the talk. How the Federal Ministry of Health will make that happen is left to be seen, but one thing must influence that decision: A stitch in time saves nine.

Anthonia Ufuoma wrote from Warri

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