Big Tobacco, and the World No Tobacco Day
By Femi Olugbile
May 31st, 2023 was World No Tobacco Day – otherwise known as ‘No Smoking Day’ for this year.
The idea of a World No Smoking Day was mooted by the member nations of the World Health Assembly in 1987 to draw attention to the scourge represented to humanity by tobacco, and the scale of preventable death and disease that it inflicts on mankind. In 1988, a resolution was passed, fixing the celebration for May 31 every year.
The theme for this year is ‘Grow Food, Not Tobacco’.
The theme may sound rather flippant, but it embodies a timeless truth. The same fields, and the same energies, that are used for growing tobacco – the essential ingredient of the multibillion-dollar cigarette industry world-wide, could just as well be used for growing food. The precariousness of the world-wide food situation was highlighted recently by the panic in some areas following difficulties in exporting wheat from Ukraine occasioned by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting sea-blockade.
The problem is that, for the farmer, growing tobacco, just like growing coca leaves, or opium, or cannabis, or any of the long list of plant substrates for drugs of abuse, is a vastly more profitable activity than growing food.
The evidence for the dangers posed by tobacco, and its main form of consumption – cigarettes, is overwhelming. Smoking is linked to 90% of all deaths arising from lung cancer. Smoking causes eight out of every ten deaths occurring from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Smoking cigarettes increases the risk of death from every known cause, affecting men as well as women. Within ten seconds of a first puff of cigarette, the toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke reach the brain, heart, and other organs.
‘Big Tobacco’ refers to the major tobacco companies of the world. The five often spoken about are Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco, Imperial Brands, Japan Tobacco International, and China National Tobacco Company.
These companies are financial behemoths, with revenues matching or surpassing the annual income of some small countries. Their size and their reach often render governments and countries vulnerable to their manipulation. The focus of their interaction with governments is ‘image laundry’, accompanied by relentless efforts to avoid passage or enforcement of strong anti-smoking laws.
One of the many actions that have taken place since the campaign against cigarette smoking started is that many governments have been forced to enact legislation designed to limit the appeal of cigarettes to the population, especially the youths. Older citizens will remember ‘Marlboro Man’, the prototype of successful advertising in the heyday of Big Tobacco, before the restrictions started kicking in. Millions of new smokers were recruited by the messaging. Nowadays, in most countries, cigarette advertising is banned entirely from the public space. Health warnings are required to be carried on every cigarette pack.
There has been some reduction in the rate of smoking. However, the statistics and health consequences are still very dire. Nearly five trillion cigarettes are consumed every year, contributing to eight million deaths and an estimated two trillion US dollars in economic damage. In 2022, there were 1.1 billion smokers in the world, and 200 million others who used tobacco products, such as ‘Smokeless Tobacco’, in the form of chewing tobacco, snuff, and dissolvable tobacco.
In Nigeria, the smoking rate in 2020 was 3.70% of the population, which represented a slight decline from previous years. Prevalence among adolescents is 3.8%, although it varies from place to place.
It is one of the ironies of modern life that, in spite the known dangers of tobacco, Big Tobacco is alive and well, and still visible among the big players in the corporate world. Earlier in the ‘cigarette wars’, the companies, through their in-house research, were aware of the dangers posed to the public by cigarettes, but they suppressed the information for many years. Many individual and class action suits have since been brought against the companies by victims and their families. Large financial settlements have been awarded by courts, mostly in the USA.
Some years ago, there was an effort on the part of Lagos State government to prepare a case for suing tobacco companies for the health effects recorded among the public, the treatment costs of which had to be borne by government in its general hospitals. It would have been a good way to bring the problem up to public visibility. Unfortunately, the case did not get off the ground.
The cost of financial settlements has barely dented the finances of these corporate giants.
Over the years, there has been a deliberate shift of marketing focus to Africa and Asia, and a targeting of youths.
The Tobacco-Smoking Control decree 1990 forbids the advertisement of tobacco products in Nigeria, and requires the inscription of health warnings on cigarette packs. A 2014 Lagos Law bans smoking in public places in the state.
A fad has emerged among the youths concerning Shisha. This involves inhaling flavoured tobacco smoke through water. It is popular at parties and night clubs in Lagos and other urban centres. There is a widespread false belief that shisha is safer than cigarettes. In fact, a shisha session generates the same amount of harmful smoke as several cigarettes.
some people have also touted E-cigarettes as an alternative to real cigarettes. E-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is by itself a powerful addictive substance, even though it doesn’t have the tar of tobacco. The sense of safety conveyed by the avid take up of E-cigarettes among youths in the Western world, and increasingly in the rest of the world, is illusory.
Big Tobacco’s current survival strategy is to reward farmers richly for their crop, and to be associated with good ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ causes. This has led to the development of an ambivalent relationship with the Nigerian government, which is not sure whether to treat them as friends or enemies.
That the dangers posed to present and future generations outweighs any economic benefits the tobacco commerce may bring to the nation is a fact. But Big Tobacco is not about to lie down and die. Smoking is a choice, it says. And human beings are entitled to choose, in a democratic world.
And so, the battle will be continued into the foreseeable future, to keep people, especially the young, from making a wrong, very wrong lifestyle choice.