A Nigeria Health Watch team attended a public hearing of 10 health sector bills by the House of Representatives, joint committee on health on Wednesday the 16th of July. It was our first time at the national assembly, and it was an enlightening experience. Firstly, we wondered whether it was a good idea to have a public debate on not one or two but ten bills on a single day. Speakers were asked to keep their contributions to 3 minutes each, a big challenge in Nigeria, where we insist on a series of pleasantries and greetings before we approach the point to be made.
One of the more controversial bills presented was the tobacco smoking control bill.
A bill for an act to enact the tobacco smoking control bill to among other things provide for the regulation of the production, importation, advertising, promoting, sponsorship, distribution, sale and designation of areas where tobacco products may and may not be smoked and for matters connected therewith 2013 (HB 455)
Some of stakeholders appeared to have misinterpreted the bill and worried that the tobacco smoking control bill was aimed at banning the sale of tobacco outright in Nigeria, which would force legal manufacturers/suppliers out of business and existence and on the other hand would open more doors to smuggling and illegal trades. Mr Ndudi Elumelu, Chairman of the House of Committee on Health, argued that the tobacco smoking control bill was neither aimed at banning tobacco smoking nor at placing a total ban to tobacco manufacturers or retailers but that it was seeking the regulation of the production, importation, distribution, promotion, advertising, sale and sponsorship and designation of areas where tobacco may and may not be smoked in the society thereby ensuring that the rights of non-smokers are also protected.
Some issues got lots of air time; for instance, where people should be allowed to smoke and where not, and how to protect the rights of both smokers and non-smokers in places such as parks, restaurants, stadia and schools. Many also wanted a change in the way cigarettes are packaged, requesting that the space allocated to warning messages and pictures on the pack increases from 25% to 75% and that these messages and pictures clearly communicate the health risks of smoking.
Nigeria is not the first country contemplating a tobacco smoking control bill. A few years ago, smoking was common place in public places all over the world. This has changed radically. The rationale for smoking bans posits that smoking is optional, whereas breathing is not. Therefore, proponents say smoking bans are necessary to protect “breathing” people from the effects of second-hand smoke, which include an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, emphysema, and other diseases.
In addition, such laws may reduce health care costs. While the health benefits may be apparent, no one made the argument of economic benefits of the life years to be gained by less exposure to tobacco, as well as lower costs to the health care sector. It is this economic argument that may make the most sense to Nigerians.
In Nigeria, as in other countries, we find civil society pitched against the corporate. Driving the passing of the tobacco smoking control bill at the hearing was the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) who subsequently released a press briefing listing 11 reasons why the bill should be passed. On the other hand Mr Freddy Messanvi, the Area Director, Corporate and Regulatory Affairs, British American Tobacco (BAT) West Africa was also around, doing the needful in stating their position on the bill.
When Members of Parliament in the UK voted overwhelmingly to ban smoking in public places in the UK, it was described as one of the greatest public health victories in the modern era. The battle lines are drawn in Nigeria. But unlike in most other countries, there is hardly any public debate around tobacco control and, the discussion of the bill was barely mentioned in the media.
You may also want to know the 9 other important bills that were heard on the day:
- A bill for an act to provide free integrated maternal newborn and child health care programs for women and children in all government controlled medical facilities and for related matters, 2012 (HB.199)
- A bill for an act to provide medical professional indemnity to establish the medical negligence complaints committee, repeal section 45 of the national health insurance scheme decree No 35 of 1999 and Matters connected thereto, 2012 (HB 248)
- A bill for an act to provide for compensation of victims of road accident and to establish the road accident victims compensation commission and for related matters (HB 294)
- A bill for an act to enact to make elaborate provisions for the management of mental health in Nigeria and for other purposes connected therewith, 2013 (HB 465)
- A bill for an act to amend the national agency for food and drugs administration and control act, cap N1, laws of the federation of Nigeria, 2004 and for other matters connected therewith, 2013 (HB 445)
- A bil for an act to amend the counterfeit and fake drugs and unwholesome processed foods (miscellaneous provisions) act, cap c34, laws of the federation 2004 to increase the penalties for offences under the act, to make comprehensive provisions for assess forteiture, compensation and for other matters connected therewith , 2013 (hb 446)
- A bill for an act to establish the Federal College of Medical laboratory science Jos and to provide for courses leading to the award of degrees, fellowship, diploma and certificate in medical laboratory science, biometrical science, other related courses and for other matters connected therewith 2013 (HB 489)
- A bill for an act to establish the National Post Graduate College of Medical Laboratory Science and for matters connected therewith, 2013 (hb.463)
- A bill for an act to promote voluntary blood donation providing for an adequate supply of safe blood, regulating blood banks and for other matters connected therewith, 2013 (HB 159)