The December 8, 2021, sensitisation and enforcement exercise on the new graphic health warning policy on tobacco products marked a new day in Nigeria’s tobacco control journey.
The exercise, carried out by the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) in Abuja, happened at a time that most Nigerians had lost hope that the policy would take off at all. This scepticism was instigated by the strange silence of the federal government more than two months after the June 23, 2021, supposed take-off date of the policy, fuelling suspicion that tobacco industry lobby may have succeeded in stopping the policy.
After 150 days of delay, the government finally announced that, with effect from November 23, 2021, all tobacco companies doing business in Nigeria must replace the hitherto colourful and appealing packs with the new ones with the graphic health warnings prescribed by the Federal Ministry of Health. The messages on the new packs are more precise and replace the former mandate which only requires the prescribed message: “The Federal Ministry of Health warns that smokers are liable to die young”.
The policy is in line with directives of Nigeria’s National Tobacco Control Regulations 2019 that new health warnings come on stream 18 months after the gazettement of the Regulations. The requirement is for all tobacco packages and not restricted to only cigarettes. The size of the warnings, which will be 50% of the total size area of the packet, will be rotated at least every 24 months and will be increased to 60% in June 2024.
It is important to note that advocacy for introducing graphic warnings is rooted in the first public health treaty – the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC) which Nigeria signed in 2004 and ratified in 2005. The WHO has established that graphic health warnings on tobacco products are more effective than text warnings for communicating the risk of smoking as it can prevent adolescents from initiating smoking.
Article 11 of the WHO-FCTC requires that tobacco product packaging provide health warnings describing the harmful effects of tobacco use. The guidelines on implementing the policy recommend that the health warning labels on tobacco products cover a minimum of 50% of the front of the pack. The written warnings must be large, clear, and legible, and must also include pictures, among others.
Global research has shown that picture-based warnings are effective in either discouraging potential smokers or motivating current smokers to quit. From Indonesia to the Philippines to the United Kingdom, the statistics associate declining smoking rates among the youth to the legible health warnings. Other countries such as Australia, Ireland and France have moved a notch higher by introducing plain packaging for tobacco products which completely removes every iota of glamour on tobacco products.
The industry fought back in response but lost the legal battles. In 2011 Philip Morris sued the Australian government for introducing the plain packaging laws and the legal battle lasted till 2015 when the Australian government won the case. Philip Morris also sued the Uruguay government for introducing graphic health warnings that cover 80% of cigarette packets and also lost the case.
It is on this premise that the Nigerian government must carry out adequate sensitisation of Nigerians on the benefits of the policy to secure the buy-in of ordinary citizens who are usually most impacted by the debilitating impacts of smoking directly or through second-hand smoke. The government must also be on top of its game in ensuring strict compliance with the requirements. This has become particularly expedient following unconfirmed reports that tobacco products with the old packs are still being sold in Lagos and some other states across the federation.
Unlike the tradition of working at cross purpose, the Federal Ministry of Health, the FCCPC and other ministries, departments, and agencies of government, particularly security agencies like the Nigeria Police and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) must work collaboratively to enforce the policy.
Only through this will be able to beat our chests that Nigeria will one day defeat the industry.
By Gabriel Omamiyeren in Jos