In a recently published report in the Nation Newspapers of 25th of September 2013, the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth and the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC) asked Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola to distance his administration from the tobacco industry. This call is not only repulsive, it is also disrespectful. It also shows a lack of understanding or a very low understanding of public policy and governance. The statement is essentially paternalistic. The writers were trying to impose their values by assuming that what is good for them is good for the whole society.
The content of the group’s statement is bad almost to the extent of meting out punishment to the governor. The statement is part of a grand design to frustrate tobacco production. By extant laws, tobacco is a legal product. Despite the several anti-tobacco sentiments based on several emotional arguments and reasoning, it is obvious to reasonable individuals that banning a product like tobacco will not stop its circulation. The recent activities of the anti-tobacco campaigners are suggesting clearly that they believe that the only way to stop people from smoking is to ban tobacco production completely. This belief is illusionary. It is illusionary because it will lead to the exact opposite of what they have in mind.
There are presently two bills at various stages of passage in the National Assembly. These bills seek to regulate tobacco by creating more restrictions to the distribution and smoking of cigarette. This is in addition to the proposed ban on any form of advertisement and promotions.
The ultimate trajectory is to eradicate cigarette production. What the bills and anti-tobacco campaigners fail to understand is that laws cannot really kill demand for a product, it will only lead to market distortions in terms of its impact on the supply-side. The distortions that would arise from this bill would create a premium for black market to exist and thrive. While the legal tobacco industry in Nigeria will suffer, an illegal market will rise to fill the demand-supply gap. In fact, the market losses that will arise from the numerous laws and ban, will be gained by smugglers and bandits.
The Environmental Rights Action and other anti-tobacco groups should understand what they advocate would result in pushing tobacco out of the legal and regulatable market to an illegal and black market. Black-market is generally bad but for a product like tobacco, it is dangerous. It is dangerous because the high profit margin that will come from smuggled and unregulated tobacco will be used to create and fund criminal gangs and cartels. Many developed nations with drug problems have learnt this lesson and that is why there are global moves to de-fund the drug cartels by legalising cannabis and other drugs.
Smuggled tobacco should be more worrisome to policymakers. This is because they are not amenable to regulation. They are often of less quality since you cannot trace the manufacturer and the distribution ring is mostly nocturnal. If you say regulated and legal tobacco has health risks, what would you now say of unregulated and smuggled cigarette?
In the published statement, the group submitted, “BAT and other tobacco companies, through their misinformation, glamorization of cigarettes and deceitful marketing strategies hide information on their product”. Any cursory looker will know this is far from the truth. For several years now, the face of tobacco advertisements and promotions have changed considerably. In the 80s, one is likely to see colourful cigarette packages, and there are many massively promoted publicly held musical shows. This is not the case in the present time.
Governor Fashola should be commended and shouldn’t be seen to be partial on any legal investment but just as he stated in the meeting be convened about the drive to educate consumers on how to make the appropriate life style. Like he said at the reception, life is simply about choices and preferences. It is improper for some people to arbitrarily impose their non-smoking preferences on others. We ought to speak up because this stigmatization on BAT may soon be extended to non-smokers and of course other products not related, choices and preferences.
Adedayo Thomas is the Director of Outreach /Publisher for African Liberty Organization for Development.