BBC and its undercover reporters are now the superstars of investigative journalism in Nigeria. Following their documentary on the widespread abuse of codeine syrup in the country, our health ministry and other government agencies reacted within 48 hours and without thinking, announced a rash of emergency measures that are certainly not going to solve the problem. Their response made me wonder if we were still under colonial rule, while their actions played into the script of the folks at BBC. The BBC producers clearly wanted us to blame our indigenous pharmaceutical manufacturers for a problem which is clearly not their fault. Worse still, they uploaded a misleading 6-minute clip on their website, knowing this is the version that would go viral. By the time I watched the full one-hour documentary I realized their mischief. Unfortunately, very few would ever get to see the full documentary. Besides, how many would watch a one hour documentary on their phones?
The problem of prescription drug abuse is not new. Our media houses had drawn attention to it in the past. But the relevant agencies failed to act. Nigeria is the only country I know, where the foreign media will make government act against our own manufacturers in an industry where the foreign media’s country has economic interests! This repulsive practice of kowtowing to Western interests to the detriment of our own people is one of the reasons we have not developed as a nation. Given the high level of youth unemployment in this country and the difficulties associated with manufacturing, we expect an independent government to treat indigenous manufacturers with extreme caution instead of taking counter-productive fire brigade actions that make the western interests laugh at our collective stupidity. Prescription drug abuse is common among youths in western countries but how many of them have blamed their own manufacturers? Have we blamed gun manufacturers for the cases of armed robbery and kidnapping?
Since the government agencies needed to hear it from BBC before taking action, I am now calling on BBC, to do an equally explosive documentary on tobacco and the ingenious marketing tactics its makers adapt to lure our people into the addictive habit that is clinically proven to lead to a slow certain death. But something tells me BBC will never do this documentary. The reason is obvious. The company which dominates the production of cigarettes in Nigeria is a British company called British American Tobacco, BAT. This company is a virtual monopoly responsible for more than 93% of cigarettes consumed in Nigeria and at least ten other African countries where it enjoys a similar monopoly. Today, there are no indigenous manufacturers of cigarettes in Nigeria. BAT controls it all. Once BBC airs a similar documentary on smoking, our health officials will act promptly to save the lives of our people and ban tobacco in the country.
This company has been in Nigeria since 1912, and they have strengthened their stranglehold on our lungs and other vital organs affected by tobacco smoking ever since. Leveraging their economic hold on former British colonies, they have consistently pursued aggressive and often unethical marketing strategies especially as anti-smoking campaigns grew. If BBC agrees to do this documentary, their investigative reporters would not need to go under cover, because there is no need for a cigarette black market. The product is freely available without any prescription. The only restriction is that retailers are not supposed to sell to people under the age of 18. Of course, nobody asks for your photo ID, when you approach the retailers for a pack of cigarettes. It is freely available on the streets and you do not need any formal qualifications before you are allowed to sell it. It will be a lot easier for the BBC reporters to gather all the information they need.
This proposed documentary will show us the overwhelming clinical evidence that smoking has no health benefits whatsoever. It will also show us that it has been established beyond even the most unreasonable doubts that smoking causes cancer. On every pack is the warming that smokers are liable to die young. I trust BBC to reveal the dirty methods that tobacco manufacturers have perfected in selling their products, especially in Africa. Your investigative reporting will reveal how BAT has promoted the sale of its products in the most fragile war-torn countries in Africa, based on their idea that where there is no government, there is no likelihood of being hampered by regulation. You investigations might also reveal that while civilians were being killed and cities ravaged by violence, BAT pursued opportunities to grow its markets. You will also reveal to your audience how cartons of cigarettes were distributed to traders hidden in black bags in Somalia after Al-Shabaab banned sales and threatened punishments under Sharia law between late 2008 and early 2009.
According to an investigative report carried out by Guardian UK, ‘BAT and other multinationals have used threats against at least eight African nations, demanding they ax or dilute the kind of tobacco control measures that have saved millions of lives in the west’. While smoking is declining in the Western countries with a corresponding improvement in life expectancy, the direct opposite is what we are witnessing in Africa. According to a publication titled BAT’s African Footprint by Action on Safety and Health, ASH, an internal BAT documents states;
‘We should not be depressed simply because the totally free world market appears to be declining. Within the total market, there are areas of strong growth, particularly in Africa and Asia…It is an exciting prospect…’
The report further states that ‘the increasing numbers of smokers across Africa are having a huge impact on health-care costs as well as lost productivity due to tobacco-related illnesses and premature deaths’. Here in Nigeria, as of 2009 when the report was published, one in five young Nigerians smoked while the number of female smokers increased ten-fold during the 1990s. The figures are certainly much higher today. Their tactics include using promotions to entice populations in largely poverty-stricken regions across Africa. Such promotions promise instant gifts and star prizes, including cars. This has been done effectively in Nigeria to increase tobacco consumption. They have used events and concerts to promote the consumption of tobacco amongst the youth population across Nigeria and Africa. We all remember the popular Golden Tones mega-concerts that held regularly across the country.
BBC reporters would not need to go undercover to discover that BAT-sponsored branding and advertising are very prominent at roadside retailers in most of our major cities. Many of these retailers are located near schools and these adverts are exposed to children and youths. I believe once the documentary is broadcast, our regulatory Agency, Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria, APCON, will also spring to action within twenty-four hours. BBC has demonstrated in its codeine documentary how much it loves our youths. I am trusting them to go a step further and save our people from the smoking epidemic that is quietly ravaging our most active population. They should show us the thousands of people lying sick in hospitals, with tobacco-related illnesses and give us the grim statistics of tobacco-related cases of cancer. I am waiting.
This article appeared first in the Guardian Newspaper…