WNTD2020: Nigeria, other African countries must do more to protect youth from tobacco

Tobacco control advocates across Africa have called on governments to protect the continent’s young population from the manipulation of the tobacco industry and the sale of tobacco products to minors.

The advocates stated their positions on the occasion of the 2020 World No Tobacco Day themed ‘Protecting youth from industry manipulation and preventing them from tobacco and nicotine use.’

The Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) said this year’s theme is very relevant to the Nigerian context in view of the tobacco industry’s unrelenting efforts at grabbing the lungs of the youth and recruiting them as replacement smokers for a dying generation of older smokers.

“The theme of the year 2020 WNTD should be a wake-up call to governments around the world, and particularly the Nigeria government, that they must act decisively because our youth are now an endangered species,” said Akinbode Oluwafemi, ERA/FoEN’s Deputy Executive Director.

Mr Oluwafemi said the statistics of young smokers in low and middle income countries like Nigeria are set to spike as the tobacco industry exploits the poor enforcement of tobacco control laws to deepen their reach to this vulnerable group.

“Aside the availability of traditional tobacco products on demand, the social media space which the youth dominate, has also been encroached upon by the tobacco industry to promote their so-called novel products that have been responsible for disturbing death rates across the globe.”

According to the World Health Organisation’s 2015 data, 17 per cent of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 smoke worldwide. The WHO said as the tobacco industry is increasingly targeting young people as an emerging and vulnerable market for its addictive products, it is a pressing issue and a challenge for tobacco control policy-makers in every country.

Oluseun Esan, the programme coordinator of Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance, said the WHO’s message is clear on the need for governments to intervene to build resilience among the next generation of young people against tobacco and to move steadily towards a tobacco-free future.

“Fortunately, the protections that the Nigeria youth need to dodge the booby traps of the tobacco industry are enshrined in our tobacco control law. It is now left for the Nigeria government to enforce them,” said Mr Esan.

“As the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic bites harder, the tobacco industry has equally heightened its image laundering and marketing of its harmful products to the youth in subtle ways. The youth must now reject their lethal products and it is the responsibility of our government to help make this happen.”

He re-echoed the WHO position that the tobacco industry is well aware that a person who starts smoking before their early 20s is not only more likely to develop an addiction but may also have an impaired ability to exercise control over smoking later in life.

‘Exploitng the youth’

The WNTD is marked on May 31 each year to nudge Parties to the World Health Organisation – Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC) to assess their achievements and progress made throughout the year towards a tobacco-free world.

The Africa Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA) in a statement noted that the 2020 WNTD theme provides the opportunity for tobacco control advocates to remind the world that tobacco kills half of its users.

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‘’Consequently the tobacco industry regularly devices strategies to initiate new consumers and get them addicted. The tobacco industry only cares about the profit it makes from its products and not public health,’’ Leonce Sessou, ATCA’s Executive Secretary, said in the statement.

ATCA is a non-profit, non-political pan-African network of civil society organizations headquartered in Lome, Togo and with membership in 39 countries.

About 60 per cent of Africans are below 24, and according to 2018 World Bank statistics, sub-Saharan Africa has a population of almost 1.1 billion. It is projected that by 2050, the continent’s population will grow to 2.4 billion and 35 per cent of youths in the world would be Africans.

‘’With strict implementation of strong tobacco control measures hindering the tobacco business in some parts of the world, it is not surprising to note that Africa, with such a growing and very youthful population, and with a relatively low implementation rate of tobacco control measures, is potentially a fruitful market for the tobacco industry,” Mr Sessou said.

‘’Tobacco control efforts have gone a long way to keep the tobacco industry at watch, but the industry continues to devise new strategies to keep its business afloat. Exploiting the exuberance of young people in the continent, the industry sometimes out rightly goes against established policies even at the detriment of the health and wellbeing of the population.

‘’An ATCA study reveals that in Africa, children as young as six years old still have access to tobacco products at kiosks, grocery stores and from street vendors, and are targets of massive and very subtle cigarette advertising and promotion. Cigarettes are also widely retailed and sold in packs of less than 20 units, and flavoured tobacco products can easily be purchased by young people.’’

Mr Sessou said African governments must regulate social media – in relation to tobacco promotion – which is prominently used by its youth, and is heavily being exploited by the tobacco industry to widen its reach.

‘’The tobacco industry has proven beyond reasonable doubt that it has no regard for public health. Even during this difficult moment when the world comes together to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry is undertaking very non-ceremonial actions to keep its business booming.

‘’World No Tobacco Day 2020 therefore requires us to be even more vigilant and not relent our efforts in frustrating tobacco industry interference activities. The challenges are enormous, but together as a community, we will surely triumph.’’

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