The Other Side Of Anti-Tobacco Campaign



By Kola Boluwaji

When people suddenly emerge  as apostles of anti-this and anti-that, we often assume they must be altruistic in intention. We do take it for granted that they must mean well simply because they appear to be speaking well. However, in most cases such people are not being driven by any altruistic motive. At a closer look, the ulterior motive which is their primary motivation becomes obvious. Children and women are common motifs in their campaigns but in the long run it becomes clear that they (the campaigners) just use them (children and women) as a means to the end the campaigners seek to achieve, not the very end. Those on whose behalf they claim to fight  often end up being the very victims of the campaigns. Hence, the need to examine the ugly significations of anti-tobacco campaign woven around children right to a good future.

For quite a while, there has been a crusade in Nigeria against tobacco as it is in most parts of the world. Many countries in Europe have already banned the use of tobacco products in public places. Some African countries have also done the same. Nigeria too must not be left out of the global campaign against the use of tobacco as there is much at stake than mere tobacco. (Obama’s threat to withdraw the US support to Nigeria for not recognising the right of gay people in the country shows clearly that there is more to such global campaigns than what the parties bring to the public space.) Presently, two bills are under deliberations in the legislative arm of government pursuing the intents of some anti-tobacco NGOs. One of such bills, the National Tobacco Control Bill, failed in 2009 when President Goodluck Jonathan refused to sign it. From World Health Organisation (WHO) to local NGOs, the cry is “ban tobacco advertising to protect young people” and “Campaign For Tobacco Free Kids.” Push for legislation against tobacco products production and advertising is considered the most effective way for protecting young people and achieving a future for them. However, the way legislation is used in Nigeria assures beyond doubt that in the long run the anti-tobacco campaigns in Nigeria may be found to have nothing to do with protecting young children.

What in Nigeria has legislation ever changed in favour of the masses? Noise for legislation does not start with anti-tobacco movements. For well over a decade there was the cry of Freedom of Information Bill. Then, the promoters of the Bill created through the power of the mass media a utopian Nigeria where information will become accessible on demand to any interested party. However, since the Bill became an Act, nothing significant has changed. Government and other official activities are still executed on the basis of official secrecy. Journalists still have to rely on what political office holders tell them as they have no better alternative in practical terms. Journalists and media houses have recently been victims of government hostility the barbaric way it was in the military era. It is interesting to know that it is the government that signed the FOI Bill into law that has attempted to gag the press through crude brutality. That stands as a testimony against the intention of those who were at the forefront of the campaign for FOI Act, showing that their goal was purely political and nothing more. If not, where is the campaign for implementation? What does a sound-minded Nigerian make out of that? There is much noise around an idea that sells, and this is an established principle in the politics of funding NGOs.

In like manner, the Petroleum Industry Bill also has raised dust for years. A heated argument in all sections of the country attends the issues it raises. The legendary Occupy Nigeria was indeed a brave attempt by Nigerians at calling the Federal Government to give its decision on oil matters human face. Isn’t the Bill already a stillborn? From the National Assembly where it started to fuel pumps around the country, it is still the same story of corruption. We can guess whose interest it is the proponents of the Bill are serving. That does not mean the opponents mean any good either. What about the deregulation of the oil sector of the economy? President Goodluck Jonathan introduced it as the only hope for reviving the economy of the country. (I still buy a litre of kerosene for N150 up till today. It is even worse in some places.) Yes, it is still partially deregulated. The point is, if partial deregulation has not been able to change the landscape in any significant manner, the potency of full deregulation in doing any better is doubtful. Some may consider SURE-P a valid point for deregulation. I simply ask such people to tell me where our annual infrastructure budget goes and what is left for SURE-P to do if budgetary allocation is responsibly utilised.

So, why do some Nigerians still make noise about regulation and legislation their legitimate business? The answers are not shrouded in any obscurity. There are legislators and they must legislate. There are NGOs and they must serve the interests of their funding bodies. If truly the WHO and all these NGOs care about the youths, things that are more imperative should be their primary preoccupation. One of such matters is education. Up till today, beyond primary school education is not a right in Nigeria and we don’t have NGOs campaigning against the reign of ignorance and the passivity of government in addressing it. This may be because ignorant people are easy to rule. ASUU has been on strike for two months and concerned NGOs who are in the business of securing a future for Nigerian kids have not seen the cause of ASUU a worthwhile and urgent one. There is a fault in their logic: when sticks of cigarette are taken away from the view of our children, life becomes better for them and their future becomes assured. This shows nothing but trivialisation of the youths themselves and of the myriad of problems that threaten their future.

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If these people’s interest in the youths is sincere, let them sponsor bills that will address in realistic ways the problem of unemployment in Nigeria. An embarrassing experimentation is going on with entrepreneurial training in various higher institutions of learning across the country. There are programmes designed for practical skill acquisition alongside curricular activities. Those programmes have been celebrated as laudable attempts at solving the problem of graduate unemployment in the country. However, polytechnic and university lecturers and professors alongside the entire nation ought to mourn that development rather than celebrate. In the name of acquiring practical entrepreneurial skills, teacher education students could learn tailoring and pharmacy students shoemaking. The point we are making is that those courses do not have practical relevance. Why then should students invest their time and resources in education when it cannot equip them with practical skills that can make them self-sustaining later in life? Isn’t it better to learn such skills for a year or two with full concentration than with extra luggage of curricular activities? In a sense, higher education in Nigeria is becoming relevant only for the certificates.

Government may ban tobacco products adverts but keep playing around more serious societal problems such as official corruption that has become a defining attribute of the country in international relations. The very problems that threaten the future of our children will remain yet unsolved. All this noise reflects a conspiracy in high places against common people. They do all these to distract us from the bitter realities of the fact that the country does not appear to have any interest in its youths beyond selfish political interest. NGOs and activists at the forefront of these campaigns are not doing them for gratis. Their funding comes from somewhere. They dare not tell the public, in the spirit of Freedom of Information, how much they have spent lobbying for the passage of the bill in the National Assembly and the implications of the campaigns for the seriously fractured Nigerian economy.

The World Health Organisation claims that tobacco kills up to half its users. Such claim is meaningless to an average Nigerian youth who since childhood has lived among people who smoke and is yet to see most of them fall dead. In principle such claims are just like the myths and taboos parents do tell their children when they are young. Children do grow up to a point where they doubt the authenticity of such claims and attempt the forbidden. Once they find out they are not true, children do become caught up in the habit of acting in defiance to those myths and taboos, even when they really don’t have to. Thus, what was intended to be deterrents end up being motivations. A friend once said that when he was in medical school, the common practice was if you cannot remember anything about the causes of some diseases, just write “smoking and drinking.” That reveals the degree of mystification around the use of tobacco products, even among those who are supposed to know better. One problem with mystification is that it is often counter-productive. When young people eventually find out that the claims made against tobacco are both unreasonable and unsubstantiated, nothing will be able to hold them back when they venture into its use.

Laws may be made against tobacco advertising but you and I cannot be too sure we will be any better for it. Our children sure will be left with the future that responsible parents can plan out for them and the one they can eke out for themselves in the absence of responsible parenthood. Laws may restrict the use of tobacco products to some quarters of the society but they will also give your children and mine more rights and freedom to visit anywhere they like. In the long run we will realise that legislation against tobacco will not do for kids what responsible parenthood must do for them. Take time to study the trend in teenage crimes in those countries where tobacco adverts have been banned for years; where most of the teenagers have never seen tobacco adverts on the TV. You will find that legislation, as good as it is, can be a distraction from addressing problems at their root. What happens after legislators have gone home with the popularity gained from bill sponsorship should start being our business because it really is our business.

•Boluwaji, a public policy advocate, wrote from Abuja