More Nigerian youth at risk as govt fails to tackle illicit tobacco trade

In 2007, British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) gifted the Nigerian Customs Service 10 Ford Ranger trucks worth N420 million to supposedly aid the agency’s operational activities. The donation was followed up with the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the government agency for a partnership to combat cigarette smuggling.

Such an alliance between a tobacco multinational and a federal government agency ironically fuels illicit tobacco trade which, in turn, increases tobacco use among young people, tobacco control advocates say.

Illicit tobacco products – cigarettes, shisha, and smokeless tobacco – are untaxed and unregulated, with no health warnings, packaging or labelling requirements making them cheaper and more readily available to young people, according to the World Health Organisation.

“Affordability and accessibility lead to increased use, this downward spiral into poverty and illness because of money spent on tobacco, and additional money spent on treating its ill-health effects has dire health and economic consequences,” the WHO noted.

Tracking the smoke

There are 13 million smokers in Nigeria, according to the World Health Organisation, and tobacco use accounts for about 16,000 deaths yearly.

Nigeria ratified the global Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products (ITP) in March 2019, becoming the 51st country to do so. The protocol contains provisions that require, among other things, the licensing of all entities involved in tobacco supply chains; tobacco companies to apply due diligence; and securing track and trace of tobacco products and production controls in factories. The ITP also demands record-keeping obligations in respect of tobacco manufacturing equipment and restrictions on the sale or purchase of tobacco manufacturing equipment.

Mary Dewan, WHO programme officer in Nigeria, said a key component of the protocol is the establishment of an effective track and trace system.

“With Kenya being one of the countries to successfully implement a track and trace system in the African region and to also promote regional peer to peer learning, WHO supported key stakeholders drawn from the Federal Ministry of Health, Federal Ministry of Finance, Federal Inland Revenue Service and the Nigerian Customs Service to undertake a study tour to Kenya.

“The Kenyan Revenue Authority hosted the delegation and they were put through the processes involved when using the Excisable Goods Management System (EGMS); the track and trace system for Kenya,” Ms Dewan said in an e-mailed response.

But like the National Tobacco Control Act signed into law four years earlier, the lack of an institutional framework has greatly slowed down the enforcement of the ITP.

Tobacco control advocates in Nigeria say they are unaware of any progress made regarding implementation since the protocol was signed over a year ago. And, as a result, more youth have continued to be exposed to tobacco use.

“Before signing the protocol, the Ministry of Health was in talks with the Ministry of Finance on the adoption of track and trace,” said Hilda Ochefu, sub-regional coordinator, West Africa, for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “We have not seen any progress since then.”

Philip Jakpor, a member of the Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals, said a lot of youth have access to tobacco products because they are still being smuggled across Nigeria’s “porous borders.”

“As far as we know for now illicit trade is still going on,” he added.

In early 2019, the Nigerian government sent a delegation including officials from the ministries of health and finance, the Federal Inland Revenue Service and the Nigerian Customs Service to Kenya. The aim was to understudy the East African country’s application of its track and trace system in tackling illicit tobacco trade.

But over a year later, the Nigerian government is still dragging its foot over the adoption of a system.

Big tobacco tactics

Being the centre of the tobacco trade in East Africa, Kenya is a major transit corridor for illicit cigarettes partly due to its porous borders with Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan. The Kenya Anti-Counterfeit Agency estimated that in 2011 the country lost nearly $800 million in tax revenue, jobs, and investment to illicit cigarette trade.

In 2012, the Kenyan government opened a tender for a company to develop and implement a system that would fix tax stamps on tobacco, wines, and spirits, the first track and trace system in Africa.

In response, the tobacco industry used a third party to push for the adoption of Codentify, its own track and trace system, but was unsuccessful. While British American Tobacco Kenya did not directly tender for the service, it used a Danish company, FractureCode, to promote Codentify, a non-secure authentication system to determine if a product is authentic or counterfeit, and later adapted for use as a digital tax verification system.

In 2017, Atos, a company involved in developing Codentify, put in a bid for a track and trace tender in Chile.

The Codentify technology was originally developed and patented in the mid-2000s by Philip Morris International (PMI). Leaked tobacco industry documents showed that in 2010, PMI licensed the technology, for free, to its competitors: British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International, and Imperial Tobacco (now Imperial Brands). One year later, the tobacco industry formed a pan-industry group, the Digital Coding & Tracking Association (DCTA), and began to promote the technology as an alternative to tax stamps.

Following the UN Illicit Trade Protocol that stated that tracking and tracing should not be done by the tobacco industry, DCTA sold Codentify to Inexto, a company run by former top officials of PMI, in 2016. Although PMI claims Inexto’s operations are independent of the tobacco company, documents suggest both entities have a financial and operational relationship. In fact, 16 Inexto staff are former PMI employees, including those who helped develop Codentify.

Tobacco control advocates in Nigeria say tobacco multinationals are, as to be expected, undermining the country’s efforts to tackle illicit tobacco trade.

“Even though we have no evidence currently, what we’ve learnt from other countries is that the industry will always try to stop the implementation of effective tobacco control policies,” said Ms Ochefu.

Targeting the youth

Tobacco use kills more than eight million people every year, including the 1.2 million who are killed by the effects of exposure to second-hand smoke. Tobacco use is one of the main risk factors for a number of noncommunicable diseases, including cancer, lung and cardiovascular diseases.

In 2012, the WHO adopted the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products to tackle illicit trade in tobacco products, a key aspect of a comprehensive tobacco control policy. The protocol requires countries to implement a track and trace system for tobacco independent of the tobacco industry.

Globally, the number of boys and girls aged 13-15 years who smoke cigarettes or use smokeless tobacco products are estimated to be about 25 million and 13 million respectively, according to the Tobacco Atlas.

According to the Global Youth Tobacco Survey, between 1999 and 2016, out of 108 countries who completed at least two surveys at some point, 43 saw no statistically significant change in tobacco use prevalence among boys and girls aged 13-15 years. The prevalence of tobacco use among boys and girls, however, decreased in 20 countries and increased in 18 others.

In Nigeria, 5.6 per cent of adults aged 15 and above use tobacco products, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and the rates are much higher among men (10 per cent) than women (1.1 per cent).

Ms Ochefu said the failure of the Nigerian government to clamp down on illicit tobacco trade would further expose its young citizens to serious health hazards.

“Illicit tobacco trade affects the Nigerian youth because these products contain chemical levels that are higher than what is ordinarily obtainable in regulated tobacco products,” she said.

“Illicit tobacco products also often contain manipulated or higher nicotine values to make them more addictive to users especially the youth.

“Since the ban of flavoured cigarettes in Nigeria, the industry can, through the back door of illicit tobacco trade, continue to sell flavoured cigarettes thereby enticing young people to pick up the deadly habit of smoking.”

The problem with illicit tobacco, according to Mr Jakpor, is its ubiquity and affordability.

“These two factors make it easy for the youths to access them,” he added.

Part of the ubiquity of tobacco products is their availability at roadside kiosks and in the open market.

PREMIUM TIMES checks at various roadside kiosks in Lagos showed the continued sale of cigarettes in single sticks. Apart from Benson and Hedges which sells for N30 and two sticks N50, most of the other cigarette brands (Rothmans, White London, etc) go for N20 per stick and N50 for three sticks.

A 2017 report by the Nigeria Tobacco Control Research Group showed that some of the strategies deployed by the tobacco industry to attract the younger generation include displaying cigarettes next to confectioneries, as well as selling them in single sticks.

“Market women also place them side by side with candies, sweets, and biscuits in shops that kids frequent when they are on their way to and from school or when they are sent on errands by their parents,” MrJakpor, whose organisation contributed to the report, said.

“A major push by our government is necessary to check the products from coming into our country and stopping them from getting to our open markets where they can be bought by our youths.

“Nigeria’s ratification of the Illicit Tobacco Trade Protocol is a right step in the right direction though it is coming quite late when we look at the inroads the tobacco industry has made in creating scenarios that tie the hands of agencies like the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) and make them see the industry as a partner in curbing a situation that the industry benefits from either way.”

One of the ways tobacco multinationals have made inroads in governments is by forming a partnership with key government agencies while surreptitiously pushing for the adoption of the industry-sanctioned Codentify.

Last year, top officials of British American Tobacco Nigeria paid a visit to the Ministry of Finance headquarters as well as the Nigerian Customs Service in Abuja, government sources told PREMIUM TIMES. The reason for their visit is unclear. Officials of the ministry and the Customs did not respond to requests for comments. The BATN spokesperson did not also respond to requests for comments.

“We heard Customs was asking if the tobacco industry can approach them with their type of track and trace, like Codentify,” a source at the ministry, who did not want to be named because he was not authorised to speak on the issue, said.

“But we made it clear to Customs that the (tobacco) industry is not to be trusted, we can’t allow them to monitor themselves.”

Such moves by tobacco multinationals in their host countries are not unusual.

For instance, in Pakistan, the government awarded its track and trace tender to the National Radio and Telecommunications Corporation, a firm which procures its technology from Inexto. Similarly, in the European Union, several companies involved in the track and trace system have longstanding links with the tobacco industry.

An official of Nigeria’s health ministry admitted that the tobacco industry and its front groups are lobbying the federal government, but did not elaborate on the extent.

A call for action

After years of advocacy, the Nigerian government gazetted the National Tobacco Control (NTC) Regulations in February 2020. But enforcement of the NTC Act, which was signed into law in 2015, has continued to stall.

Ultimately, tobacco control experts agree that staying away from tobacco products altogether is the best way to go. They insist that illicit trade makes tobacco products readily available, affordable, and uncontrolled thereby putting young people who know nothing about the intricacies of tobacco smuggling, suffer the heavy consequences of the phenomenon.

Olu’Seun Esan, the programme coordinator at Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance, noted that tobacco companies are still having a “field day” in Nigeria due to weak institutions and lack of effective implementation of the laws.

“The tobacco industry still finds a way to promote its harmful products at parties, in the higher institutions, in the media and entertainment platforms as well as on the internet,” he said.

“These are clearly in clear contravention of the National Tobacco Control Act 2015. You still find actors and actresses smoking in movies and reality TV shows; musicians smoke in musical videos, all these are forms of promotion. The Government must do much more to enforce the provisions of the law by making public scape-goats out of people who break the tobacco control law.”

Mr Esan believes the Nigerian government can do much more in shielding the youth from the manipulation of the tobacco industry.

“The youth can be protected from the effects of illicit trade when the government stamps its foot to say ‘enough is enough,’” he said.

“Effective implementation of the law and policies is one way the government can effectively protect the youths from the effect of illicit trade. The government has all the roles to play to deploy technology and safeguard the borders effectively to ensure that illicit trade is completely eradicated.”

Another tobacco control advocate, Michael Olaniyan, said the government should “properly” tax tobacco products as seen in other countries.

“While doing that, we need to plug all means of tobacco inflow into the country. Our borders and the personnel that man them need to be equipped enough to nip illicit trade in the bud.

‘’The government also needs to put in place what is called track and tracing. This helps the government to know exactly how many products are in production or distribution, and be able to trace the root origin of each product. With this innovation, the government will be able to identify and seize non-compliant and illicit tobacco products in the market.’’

The advocates agree that during this year’s World No Tobacco Day, on May 31, when the WHO calls for the protection of the youth from tobacco industry manipulation and demands measures to prevent them from being initiated to tobacco and nicotine use, the Nigerian government can adequately comply with this request by ensuring strict implementation of current tobacco control policies adopted in the country, including the National Tobacco Control Act 2015, National Tobacco Control Regulations 2019 and the WHO Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products (ITP).