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With the rising influx of flavoured cigarettes into the Nigerian market, which are mostly targeted at luring children, Martins Ifijeh writes on why the government and stakeholders must strengthen interventions against illicit tobacco trade in the country
With the proliferation of flavoured cigarettes into the Nigerian market, the inauguration of the National Tobacco Control Committee (NATTOC) by the Minister of Health, Prof Isaac Adewole, last year, gave strong indications of the Federal Government’s readiness to commence the implementation of the National Tobacco Control Act (NTCA).
NATTOC’s roles in the implementation of NTCA are critical in many ways. They coordinate multi-stakeholder national youth smoking prevention programmes, advise and make recommendations to the Health Minister, and screening or processing applications for licence to manufacture or import or distribute tobacco products in Nigeria.
Perhaps one burning issue, which the committee is expected to address with urgency, is the rising volume of illicit trade in tobacco and more importantly, the proliferation of flavoured cigarettes considering its implications for youth smoking.
Illicit trade in tobacco accounts for an estimated 600 billion cigarettes per year worldwide. These illicit cigarettes have either been smuggled, counterfeited or evaded duties in another manner. The illegality thrives on the fact that cigarettes are among the most commonly traded products on the black market due to high profit margins, relative ease of production and movement, and low detection rates and penalties.
Moreover, illicit tobacco trading poses greater danger to global security. According to the WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia, Dr. Poonam Khetrapal, “while the smuggling of contraband tobacco products across national borders has always been profitable, illegal tobacco trade is now the trademark for organised crime networks, which may also be involved in drugs, human and arms trafficking, as well as terrorism.”
She observed further that “cigarettes are becoming a preferred item to smuggle. Besides, unlike smuggling narcotics or other hard-core trafficked products, punishment for smuggling tobacco is less severe.” This is in addition to the fact that since tobacco products are not usually a high priority for enforcement agencies, they are attractive to smugglers.
Even more disturbing is the proliferation of flavoured cigarettes and the inherent risks. Flavoured cigarettes contain fragrances and sweet fruity flavours that resonate with children and malevolently obscure the strong taste of the tobacco. Thus, they have a powerful and irresistible appeal for children and young adults thereby making it easy to embrace and hard to quit. This allure is capable of not only initiating underage smokers but also adults, who previously didn’t smoke, into the habit. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. also confirms that it can be a ready tool for luring adolescent beginners into tobacco consumption.
Not only does the NTCA clearly forbid the sale of cigarette to anyone below the age of 18 but also their involvement in the tobacco business. It also frowns on the production and packaging of cigarette in any form that can entice young people into smoking.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 18 per cent of Nigerian teenagers aged 13 and 15 have previously smoked cigarette.
Regulatory bodies, on their part, are not relenting as they have on a number of occasions taken the battle to the sellers, while exercising their statutory functions.
For instance, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), caused a consumers’ alert to be published in some national dailies in February, 2015 to sensitise the general public about the distribution and marketing of non-compliant brands of flavoured cigarettes.
In the said advertorial, it accused the company that imports the brands of not having due authorisation to import, distribute and market same and advised marketers, distributors, retailers and consumers to refrain from purchasing the non-compliant brands. The public alert also stated that “these brands of cigarettes are not allowed to be manufactured or imported into Nigeria by the Nigeria Industrial Standard for Tobacco Products (cigarettes), as it could initiate and induce children into smoking.”
Besides, imported cigarettes do not bear the same health specifications and warnings, compared to locally manufactured cigarettes. Thus, the health implications for the consumer are grave.
It is noteworthy that the manufacturing, importation and sale of flavoured cigarettes are in violation of Section 4.7 of SON Cigarettes Standards 2014 which states: “Flavouring substances with potential to initiate or appeal to children, such as strawberry, banana, apple, among others, shall not be used in the manufacture of cigarettes.”
It is quite disturbing the manner in which the importers of these illegal products are constantly devising ways of evading regulation. Following SON’s prohibition of the display of flavours on the cigarette packs, whilst some of the manufacturer/importers of these flavoured products devised dubious means of still featuring flavours on the packs by using colours associated with the various fruity flavours, and or using abbreviations of fruity flavours on the packs i.e a red pack with “STR” representing Strawberry, an orange pack with “ORG” for Orange and brown pack with inscription “CHO” for Chocolate on the cigarette packets.
Others still have fruity symbols such as “cherry” both pictorially and in words on the cigarette packets. What is more worrisome is the childlike appeal of these brands of cigarettes to underage children even when under watchful eyes of their parents.
When a packet of such products is picked up, the fruity flavours on the packaging is readily perceived even before it is lit. When lit, it gives off a nice aroma that masks the tobacco smell as fruity air fresheners or fragrances. No doubt, the act is intended to attract children by their fruity nature and also mask the smell of tobacco even after being smoked. By so doing, it would be very easy for a child to smoke such products and go undetected even right under the nose of an adult.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), on September 22, 2009, placed a ban on cigarettes containing certain characterising flavours. The ban, authorised by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, is part of a national effort by FDA to reduce smoking in America.
FDA’s ban on certain characterising flavoured cigarettes highlights the importance of reducing the number of children who start to smoke, and who become addicted to dangerous tobacco products.
In walking its talk, SON has in recent years conducted raids in some locations in the South-west of Nigeria and some northern and eastern states in which dealers in flavoured cigarettes were apprehended and had their shops locked up. Authorities are particularly worried that the widespread nature of the product in the northern part of the country might further aggravate the prevalence of adolescent smoking in the region.
No doubt, the recent raids will reverberate, in the minds of flavoured cigarettes dealers, SON’s determination to stem the tide. Such efforts can only be successful with the collaboration of sister agencies like the Nigeria Police and other law enforcement agencies in the country.