The upper legislative chamber, The Senate, has begun moves aimed at permanently banning the manufacturing, consumption and promotion of tobacco in Nigeria.
However, the development generated controversies among senators, during debate on a bill to that effect just as the Senate President, David Mark, lamented that powerful individuals who were against the ban and regulation of tobacco in the country influenced Presidency to withhold assent on a similar bill sponsored and passed by the 6th Senate.
Senators, who spoke during debate on the bill which was presented by the Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, PDP, Delta North for deliberation, were sharply divided.
Although the bill, as presented by Senator Okowa merely sought repeal of the act on tobacco manufacturing, sale, promotion and sponsorship in the country, majority of the senators who contributed to the debate on the issue, insisted that tobacco should be outrightly banned in the country.
But the Senate President explained that the bill, as he understood, merely seeks to regulate advertisement about smoking in the country, given the danger associated with tobacco.
“The essence of the Bill is to highlight the dangers inherent in smoking and it also seeks to regulate advertisement about smoking. We have gone one step further to ban it also but when it goes to public hearing, then we will get public opinion on that.
Recalling how a similar bill sponsored and passed in the 6th Senate was killed by the Presidency, Mark appealed to relevant authorities not to repeat withholding of assent if the current one scales through.
“Let me remind us that we passed this bill actually in the Sixth Senate and Senator Olorunmibe Mamora was the sponsor. He talked extensively and we had a similar debate the same way we talked now.
“Powerful groups are behind the bill and I remember that in the Sixth Senate a lot of lobbyists were all over the place when this bill was being debated. So I am not surprised that we eventually didn’t sign it but we should have courage to at least do something. I don’t think we should just leave it that way this time around.
“The dangers inherent in smoking are very obvious and I think that at the end of the day we would be able to get feelers from the general public. My prayer is that this time around once we pass this bill, I hope that it will be signed because we are just left hanging at the moment. It is neither here nor there. Nothing has been done.
“Hopefully this time around the executive would be able to sign it. Those who would determine will be the general public – Nigerians – but let me remind us also that this Bill is not just a Nigerian bill. It is far more important because there are a lot of countries that have tried to debate the issue of total ban on cigarette and smoking.”
Contributing to the debate on the bill, the Senate Leader, Victor Ndoma-Egba, PDP, Cross River Central, said: “I support and concur with all the arguments as canvassed in the lead debate by Senator Ifeanyi Okowa but I want to ask that in this bill, there is the health component just as it has the economic component.
“In spite of the dangers of tobacco, we have to deal with the use of tobacco in such a regulated manner that it doesn’t create any economic distortion because if we don’t address the economic issues properly, then we will end up with more of smuggled tobacco that is unregulated and our own tobacco industry here will become un-protective.
“So when it gets to public hearing, I want to urge the relevant committees to balance the health issues with the economic issues.”
Also, in his contribution, Senator James Manager, PDP, Delta South, said: “This is a very harmless bill about something that is very harmful to human health. I used to wonder why the world is shying away from banning tobacco.
“Instead, they are advertising it. We should not talk of the economic benefit of something that is harmful to human health because you need to be alive for you to enjoy economic benefit of something. Tobacco consumption supposed to be banned. This tobacco, I don’t know how it tastes, by the grace of God, Mr President, I have never attempted to smoke it and I don’t want to know.”
On his part, Senator Smart Adeyemi, PDP, Kogi West, said: “I rise to support this bill. To support this bill, I took time to look at all the various recognitions and issues that this bill intends to address but I want to also say that tobacco deserves to be banned in this country. Today, as we are here deliberating on this bill, I have looked round and said to myself that how many of our colleagues are smoking here.
“ I doubt if there is anybody here that smokes and I want to say here that the rich, the highly placed Nigerians have come to realize the harm that smoking does to the health, that is why they don’t smoke. Smoking was fashionable, so to speak in the 60s and 70s.Then, people smoked and they looked at it that they have attended a particular class, they would smoke and show that they were smoking. Now, Nigerians have come to realized that it is not something to be encouraged.
“So, the question now is, who are the people that engaged in smoking? When you go to Nigerian universities, you see student smoking in the afternoon and night and those who smoke among the students are the poor people, people who are going through the hard economic situation, they resort to smoking as a way of easing pressure.
“I do not see any reason why we should be here and still encourage tobacco in Nigeria because I do not believe in any economic benefit the cigarette is contributing to our economy. I think we are a blessed nation and we should do everything possible to save the younger ones.”
Senator Anyanwu, PDP, Imo East, while also speaking, said: “I support the bill because I have come to see that all the countries where people smoke openly are the poorest countries in the world. ”
This bill is really to save lives, we want money, we want jobs but we don’t want jobs in an area that will lead to massive death. We should make it very uncomfortable for people to smoke.”
Senator Akin Odunsi, APC, Ogun West, also supported the bill, saying: “I rise to lend my voice to this bill, particularly, to express an opinion that is in tandem with those already expressed by two earlier speakers—Senator Adeyemi and Senator James Manager.
“I think my position is very clear; any goods that is legally produced should be legally promoted. As I speak today, there has been continuous restriction on the promotion of cigarette and I know that the reason is because we all know that cigarette smoking is dangerous to health.
“And of course, if we look at the economic angle, because of what we derive from the manufacturers of tobacco and the employment that it generates, then of course, we will be cutting corners. I believe that this bill has come short of what we expect, if we all agree that smoking is injurious to heath, even the smoke is injurious to non smokers, then the is no reason why we should continue to encourage the production of this product.
“I think we should be bold enough at this stage to stop the production of tobacco products completely, because that way, they can still engage in another area of production that can employ the youths of this country. On this basis, I think that we should stop paying lip service to this problem we have at hand.”
But Senator Abdul Ningi, PDP, Bauchi Central, kicked against the ban being canvassed by some of his colleagues. He said: “ I think we should only look at clearly what this bill seeks to achieve. This bill seeks to regulate and then control the production- the manufacturing and promotion of tobacco.
“One of the cardinal principles of creation of human beings is for him to be able to identify what is good and what is right. The issue of banning tobacco hinges on fundamental human rights of an individual and therefore, if you ban tobacco, you must ban several other things. Example, you must ban corruption, you must also ban chewing stick, you must also ban illicit sexual intercourse, you must also ban lesbianism.
“ A human brain is created with the freedom of choice. There is no doubt that tobacco affects somebody’s health and that is what the bill seeks to achieve but no human being will tell me what to do and what do do because I have human capacity to choose what I want.
“Therefore, some of these choices, we must be caution sometimes when we try to do things that infringe on the choices of human beings. Some people, if they don’t smoke tobacco, they go into coma. There are people who cannot work without tobacco, what we need to do as a parliament is to identify the cardinal problems with a view to regulate.
“This bill is not aimed at banning tobacco and therefore we should not even go there. Nobody, no nation, no country has gone there and Nigeria should not go there.”
Earlier, in his lead debate, sponsor of the bill, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa explained that scientific evidence has unequivocally established that tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke cause death, disease and disability.
He further said the bill provides generally for protection of present and future generation from the devastating health, social, economic and environmental consequences of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke.
He appealed to senators to support the passage of the bill, explaining further that the bill seeks to regulate tobacco products and disclosure of information about tobacco production to the government in order to effectively exercise its regulatory powers.
He recalled that the World Health Assembly, WHA, at its 56th meeting, adopted a treaty on World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, saying the treaty, which came into force on February 27,2005, became the first WHO treaty adopted under Article 19 of the WHO constitution that was legally binding in 176 ratifying countries of which Nigeria was one.