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The Limits Of Rights Of Anti And Pro Groups In Tobacco Debate By Moses Obaloji

TobaccoA couple of months ago, l sat at a parents’ forum where we were regaled with stories told from a young person’s perspective. Whilst we sat with our mouths wide open in simplistic amazement at how young people see things and understand them, it occurred to me that what we have playing out were two cultures tugging side by side: the older generation saw and understand issues from one perspective and the younger generation from another. The question now is which perspective is right. As many will say, perception is reality. Reality for many people is hard to change, especially when it serves interests that accrue benefits to a person, an organization or a group.
This is the case with the issues related to the Tobacco industry. As an educated smoker, l am aware of the issues associated with smoking, including the long drawn regulation debate which is playing out in Nigeria.
I am pretty sure that nobody disputes the fact that smoking is harmful, not even the tobacco companies or the illiterate man on the streets of Nigeria. Everyone knows and accepts that smoking has negative health effects. Most smokers also agree that the product must be regulated. However, the simple truth is that even with this reality, many still decide to indulge in the act of smoking.
There are two sides to the tobacco debate story, hence two different perspectives.
There is one which the anti-tobacco groups through hard-nosed, confrontational campaigns and spurious attacks on all those who attempt to relate to the industry in one way or the other push aggressively through the media and at different workshops; there is that which the industry itself, in attempting to desperately defend its legality also push through its reports.  So which is real and which is not?
Governments worldwide, while also acknowledging the fact that tobacco is injurious to health have deemed it common sense to legalise the product. Therefore, the industry as the endorsement of governments and are legal entities who have rights and obligations. These obligations include the right to operate and market their goods within stipulated regulatory guidelines. It is on the basis of this reality that the industry fulfils its obligations as a legal entity and carries itself as one–this includes exercising its rights to interact with different publics, including government officials as they deem fit. This is a reality which the anti-tobacco activists, however, find hard to accept despite the legality of the industry.
From their own stand point – the industry even though legal, must be constrained from exercising its rights as a corporate entity.
Though, it is very hard for the anti-tobacco groups to accept this interaction between the industry and its publics, it is, however, their right: one which they can legally exercise without fear or prejudice. It is based on this reality that the industry all over the world seeks to interact with national governments and its agencies in order to safeguard their commercial entity which has been endorsed as legal.
Smoking is bad for the health: it is important to note that this is not a bone of contention. The contention between the anti-tobacco groups and the industry is not the effect of smoking; it is the form of regulation that should guide the act of smoking. The groups on one hand, believe that certain forms of regulation will effectively reduce consumption and supply. The industry also agrees that regulation is key to these same public health objectives, but to be effective, they insist that any tobacco law must be balanced or it may lead to increase in smuggling. Reports by reputable sources such as CNN, Reuters and others show increasing incidence of smuggling and the fact that criminals, war lords and terrorists are the ones in charge of this underground trade.
If (God forbid) illegal trade becomes the dominant source of supply of tobacco products, the fear is that Nigeria will not have the capacity to deal with, nor will the anti-tobacco groups have the boldness to confront the issue, hence leaving the consumer and the vulnerable underage person susceptible to the ills of smuggled tobacco products. This can be dangerous in a country like Nigeria where disposal income is small, hence down trading will kick in due to its attractive cheap prices.
From where l stand, the tobacco industry is part of the solution. Many tobacco lobbying groups have attacked the so called self-regulation of the industry, though it is sometimes the only form of reasonable regulation that actually exists to serve the interests of the consumer who is addicted to the so called pleasures of smoking. Looking critically at Nigeria, the industry’s voluntary adherence to APCON’s (Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria) advertising guidelines on the huge bill boards, taking the mention of tobacco brands off the face of our national TV and reducing their consumer events from those similar to the alcohol and telecoms industries to strictly, by invitation events to consumers only, is self-regulation that has helped in the face of almost none. The “18 plus only” signs and the inclusion of regulatory agencies in driving standardization plus the closely coveted relationship between them and their supply chain partners are things that the industry actively drove and established.
Though, under spurious attack from the anti-tobacco groups, one can safely say that without the industry, this regulation, whether self-imposed or not could not have been achieved. However, it is instructive to also note that it is this very same attempt to comply with stricter operations that has stirred up the loins of the anti-tobacco groups who in their attempt to denormalise the industry, attack every move made  by the industry to respond to every allegation. Nothing the industry does apparently can ever be considered good.
Both sides have taken to the media to tell their side of the story. One group playing on the sentiments of the public, and the other attempting to save face. Whatever be the case, some of us welcome both the industry and the anti-tobacco groups. The industry is needed and is also part of the solution for the consumer in the future; they have been the solution to self-regulating the industry where the law was generally very weak. This is buttressed by such reports as the GATS report and a research conducted by a team of researchers led by Dr. Christopher Murray, who is the director of IHME and published by BBC online.
I belong to the group of consumers that applaud the e-cigarette invention and look forward to many more innovations from the industry to provide us with healthier and pleasurable options.
A well-known anti-tobacco group in the United kingdom; Action on smoking and health (ASH) has this to say: ” ASH’s position on e cigarettes:  ASH supports a harm reduction approach to tobacco, that is, we recognise that whilst efforts to help people stop smoking should remain a priority, many people either do not wish to stop smoking or find it very hard to do so. For this group, we believe that products should be made available that deliver nicotine in a safe way, without the harmful components found in tobacco. Most of the diseases associated with smoking are caused by inhaling smoke which contains thousands of toxic chemicals. By contrast, nicotine is relatively safe. Therefore, e-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine without the harmful toxins found in tobacco smoke, are likely to be a safer alternative to smoking. In addition, e-cigarettes reduce second hand smoke exposure since they do not produce smoke. It should be noted, however, that ASH does not provide commercial product endorsement. ”
I firmly believe this to be true. Fans of soft drinks, beverage products which are also coming under increasing global attacks by activists will tell you that they are also aware of the health implications of the things that they consume, but are however, often reluctant to give it up. The desire really is to have healthier options. I believe this is the same for every cigarette lover who does not want to give up their smoking habit. They look forward to a healthier option availed to them. Therefore, l am of the same opinion as ASH. For this and many more, l believe that these companies are needed.
The anti-tobacco groups on the other hand are pressure groups. We do need pressure groups. They exist to make these companies do what they have to do and not continue as status quo. However, in many developing countries, they have been found to be more self-centred than anything else. While l passionately welcome what these anti-tobacco groups have done, they must turn their funding to more value adding utilization such as widespread education of consumers and youths on the effects of smoking with additional investment on alternatives for the smoker. Far beyond regulation and media sensationalism, we need these to assist us in a healthier smoking environment. We need to see these groups move away from attacking everyone that moves or breathes near these companies to adding more value to the lives of the consumer.
I look forward to a smooth conclusion of the tobacco control bill, and sincerely hope that it does not die with current administration or legislature. I want to see it moves speedily up to Mr. President for his assent.

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Moses Obaloji Wrote in from Lagos

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