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HEALTH: After Successful U.S. Suits, Nigeria Takes on Big Tobacco

Sam Olukoya

LAGOS, Jan 23 2008 (IPS) - Cigarette packs sold in Nigeria carry a health warning: ‘‘The Federal Ministry of Health warns that cigarette smokers are liable to die young.’’ But, says the government, this warning has not stopped many Nigerian youngsters from smoking.

Taju Olaide, 17, told IPS that he unaware of the warning because he is uneducated and therefore cannot read what is printed on the cigarette packs he buys. ‘‘I don’t care about what they write on the cigarette packs because I cannot read. What is important to me, is the cigarette inside the pack.’’

Another youngster, Uche Okeke, told IPS that even though he has read the warning, he is not bothered by it. ‘‘I don’t believe smoking cigarettes makes me liable to die young. Many old people who smoke are alive and well.’’

The youth presents a huge market in this West African country with its 135 million inhabitants. Just more than 40 percent of the Nigerian population is below 14 years of age.

The World Health Organization estimates that 18 percent of young Nigerians smoke – in spite of the health warnings on cigarette packs, showing that the message is not effective, says Akinbode Oluwafemi, national coordinator at the Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance (NTCA), an umbrella body for civil society groups.

The war against tobacco in Nigeria has taken a significant twist with a law suit filed by the Nigerian government in conjunction with the civil society group Environmental Rights Action, the Nigerian affiliate of the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

The suit filed at a federal court in the capital Abuja is against big tobacco companies International Tobacco Limited; Philip Morris International; British American Tobacco Plc; its Nigerian subsidiary British American Tobacco (Nigeria) Limited; and the lobby group the Tobacco Institute.

The suit seeks relief to regulate tobacco smoking, given the high number of under-aged children in what is Africa’s most populous country. The government is also claiming 44 billion dollars in compensation from the tobacco companies.

This follows the 1998 law suit by 46 U.S. states against tobacco companies to recoup health-care spending on tobacco-related illnesses. In a settlement, four tobacco companies agreed to pay 206 billion dollars to the 46 states over 25 years and to cease advertising targeting youth.

Since then, U.S. juries have awarded millions of dollars in damages against tobacco companies in compensation to Americans affected by smoking through death and disease. Suits have followed in other countries.

However, critics in the tobacco industry describe the Nigerian government’s monetary claim as outrageous.

Tunde Irukera, attorney for the government, defends the claim as follows: ‘‘The claim is not just about medication for tobacco related ailments, as some people assume,’’ he told IPS. ‘‘It covers the entire cost of health care related to tobacco; and the punitive and anticipatory damages that will result from tobacco smoking in future.’’

Irukera told IPS that given the rate of smoking among young people in Nigeria and the fact that tobacco-related ailments take about 20 years to manifest, the government anticipates a huge epidemic of tobacco-related diseases in the coming years.

‘‘There will be a major strain on public health care because the majority of these smokers are poor people who have no means to access treatment themselves. They will depend on the government to bear the cost,’’ he says.

One of the claims on which the government is hinging its case against the tobacco companies is that, in spite of their obvious knowledge of the adverse effects of their product, they have allegedly targeted young and under-aged persons in their advertising and marketing.

One of the defendants, British American Tobacco (Nigeria) Limited, is the largest tobacco manufacturer and marketer in Nigeria. The company, which controls about 75 percent of the Nigerian tobacco market, denies charges that it is targeting young and underage persons.

‘‘We strongly believe that minors should not smoke and that smoking should only be for adults who understand the risks associated with it,’’ a company spokesperson has said. Indeed, according to the company it has a policy to discourage youngsters from smoking.

‘‘Our policy worldwide is not to market to anyone under 18 years of age or higher, if the law in a particular country sets the age higher. We therefore fully support laws and regulations on a minimum age for buying tobacco products and penalties for retailers who break the law,’’ said the spokesperson.

In 2003 the company launched a youth smoking prevention campaign in Nigeria. It says the launch involved the delivery of posters and stickers to more than 250,000 points of sale across Nigeria.

The posters carried the message: ‘‘This outlet commits not to sell tobacco products to people under 18 years’’, which were displayed as deterrents to minors and to prevent under-aged smoking.

But Oluwafemi is not impressed by the campaign. ‘‘All they do is to put out posters saying they are not selling tobacco to young people but young people are still buying and the tobacco vendors are still selling.

‘‘The objective of the tobacco company is to falsely project its image as one of taking steps to stop young people from smoking,’’ he says.

Tobacco companies embark on such public relations campaigns while practising the opposite, Oluwafemi alleges. The companies run competitions in conjunction with smoking promotions. ‘‘People can win laptops, cameras and mobile phones – things that the youth romanticize. These companies also sponsor shows and parties that attract youths and kids.’’

The Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance has particular demands regarding the warnings on cigarette packs. The print of the warning is so small that it is not easy for smokers to see them, Oluwafemi says. ‘‘We want bold warnings that would up take no less than 30 percent of the space on cigarette wrappings.’’

He also wants Nigeria to emulate countries like Thailand, Brazil and Canada that use photographs showing cancer caused by cigarettes on their tobacco packs. ‘‘Such measures will help people make informed decisions on whether they should smoke or not,’’ he says.

A significant portion of British American Tobacco is owned by the Swiss luxury group Richemont, the family business empire of the South African billionaire Anton Rupert who died in 2006.

The case has been adjourned until March.

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