We must act now to save Nigeria's generation of ‘tobacco babies’

Confronted with the evidence of a prevalence of underage tobacco use, the Nigerian government has expressed outrage and has continued to make pronouncements without much action. (Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde)

Confronted with the evidence of a prevalence of underage tobacco use, the Nigerian government has expressed outrage and has continued to make pronouncements without much action. (Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde)

COMMENT

One out of every four Nigerian stores where cigarettes and other tobacco products are sold admit to selling these dangerous items to persons under the age of 18. This finding was contained in a crowdsourcing survey report managed by my organisation, Gatefield, with the support of Washington DC-based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

Four years ago, Nigeria enacted a Tobacco Control Law (NTC Act 2015) which amongst its other provisions, prohibits the sale of tobacco products to minors, but the law has hardly been implemented.

The survey, tagged ‘Tobacco vs the People’, was conducted by hundreds of youth anti-tobacco advocates across over 2 000 retail points using the mapping software Ushahidi.

The findings are scandalous.

Nigerians are quite traditional and tend to hold moral values in high regard. It seemed improbable that Nigerians, especially adult traders, would sell cigarettes — often frowned upon as a social vice — to children at that scale. But the numbers tell a different story. In Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, one out of every two vendors sold to minors.

The idea that the Nigerian society would frown at the sale of tobacco products to minors was backed by data. The survey revealed that a majority of vendors (81%) approved of the provision that prohibited the sale of tobacco products to and by minors when they were informed of the Law. However, about 41% of the vendors surveyed were not aware of this law.

While the survey did not probe to find out whether the children bought these products for use by themselves or for their adult relatives, one thing that it does reveal is that the relative ease of access of tobacco products to these kids is an emergency situation that has to be contained urgently. Muzzled by stringent laws and diligent implementation in the West, the tobacco industry has turned its sights to sub-Saharan Africa especially countries like Nigeria — with a super young population and undergoing a demographic explosion — which it sees as its next market frontier. While cigarette sales are decreasing globally, in Nigeria, it is on the rise. 

Tobacco companies like British American Tobacco are recording strong and steady growth in volumes traded which is another strong warning signal. Seeing the increased desire of adult smokers in the country to quit smoking, the industry is now targeting Nigeria’s children, which it sees as its next generation consumers, unhindered.

According to the 2012 Nigeria Global Adult Tobacco Survey, half of Nigeria’s former daily adult smokers have quit smoking (not smoked in 10 years) and almost two-third of its 4.7-million adult smokers are struggling to quit on their own. Inadequate in-country cessation programmes would mean that many of the children now being exposed to tobacco products stand the risk of being entrapped into a lifetime addiction, with the accompanying devastating consequences.

A report titled “Big Tobacco, Tiny Targets” revealed that the Tobacco Industry was stealthily advertising to children in Nigerian schools and in violation of another provision of the Law which prohibits tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

“Of the 221 schools surveyed, 193 (87%) had a point of tobacco sale within 100 metres of the school premises and 127 (66%) of the 193 POS (points of sale) were within visible distance of the immediate school environment,” the report read. 

Another investigative story uncovered that the targeting efforts might have been successful as many of these kids have taken on to smoking. It is generally known that most adult smokers begin the habit from their teenage years, some even as early as 10 years old.

Confronted with the evidence, the Nigerian government has expressed outrage and has continued to make pronouncements without much action. The senate passed a reactive resolution mandating that the relevant agencies, including the federal ministry of health, take measures to prohibit the retail of tobacco products within 100 metres from all schools across the country. According to a Tobacco Atlas country fact sheet, over 25 000 Nigerian children between the ages of 10 to 14 smoke on a daily basis as a result of unhindered access to tobacco products, from which they must by all means be protected. To help our children, the government must do more than just talk.

While we all are no strangers to the manoeuvrings and various shenanigans and sophisticated schemes of the Tobacco Industry, the government must discharge its own very basic responsibility which is to fully enforce the National Tobacco Control Act and prosecute those who violate the law to serve as a deterrent to others.

Advocates must continue to push and press the government on this responsibility. We have an entire generation to save.

Adewunmi Emoruwa is the lead strategist at Gatefield, a public strategy and media group. 

Adewunmi Emoruwa

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