By Alaba Cole- Abuja
The civil society groups that have been energetically campaigning against tobacco use, bringing the issues around the industry into the public arena, giving other observers the opportunity to analyse and comment on the issue from different angles.
It is no surprise that the NGOs are able to devote a lot of energy into publicising the issue, considering that they receive backing and funding from powerful international organisations committed to tobacco control. In 2011 Michael Bloomberg committed an additional $220 million to the fight against tobacco around the world, bringing his total commitment to $600 million over several years. Michael Bloomberg is the founder of the Bloomberg Foundation which, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is one of the prominent benefactors of the anti-tobacco campaign in Africa. Both powerhouse foundations joined forces when in 2008 they announced a combined investment of $500 million to increase funding for tobacco control.
That sort of money committed to a single cause brings to mind a similar campaign that has been ongoing for over half a century. This campaign, often described as a war, has not only turned out to be an expensive, futile and ineffective series of battles, it has become a war that even those fighting now concede should be fought in another way – the war on drugs.
It has been fought around the world for decades and cost billions of dollars and has been a big headache for governments because there is no structured, legally incorporated organisations that can be regulated and controlled – it is a war against thousands of nameless, faceless individuals and organisations and a pointless situation where, for every crackdown on a major supplier, hundreds more pop up.
This is why many organisations and even politicians in Europe and the US are now making controversial calls for a change in drug policy and a move to legalise drugs. Why? Because they have recognised that if the industry is legalised, it will be easier to control. It sounds scandalous but if deeper thought is applied, it can be seen to be an argument that makes sense.
A commentator, writing in the UK Guardian newspaper reported that two European countries, Portugal and Czech Republic, have decriminalised drugs, taking moves to ensure that supply is controlled, products regulated and profits taxed.
An organisation called Count the Costs is campaigning for an alternative to the current approach, arguing that although the ‘war on drugs’ has been fought for 50 years, it has not prevented the increase in drug supply and use. Count the Costs also argues that ‘the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has identified the many serious unintended negative consequences of the drug war.’ These consequences listed include a threat to public health, the enrichment of criminals and the waste of billions on ineffective law enforcement.
The Economist magazine recently ran a commentary on Uruguay’s controversial decision to legalise cannabis (marijuana), as part of the South American country’s attempt to try an alternative approach to the drug problem. Other Latin American countries are also tending towards the consideration of such alternative approaches to the drug challenge. The magazine also reported that although this approach has met with opposition, supporters of have argued that “drug prohibition has caused more problems, in the form of organised crime and clandestine consumption.” Needless to say, the supporters’ views held out.
But even before Uruguay, the US states of Washington and Colorado were the first, in 2012, to legalise marijuana use. This decision to adopt such a bold approach was described by The Economist magazine as “a sensible drug policy decision from the federal government, for once”
Although there is a clear difference between illegal hard drugs and legal tobacco production, a parallel can be drawn in the way that a war that is declared on a so-called public enemy, could end up creating undesirable outcomes and a situation that spirals out of control.
There is currently a lot of money flowing in and around tobacco control in Nigeria, so it is understandable that the civil society campaigners and NGOs who receive grants from the international multimillion dollar foundations would dive enthusiastically into the task of demonising tobacco. However, they should not, in their excitement, overlook some of the unanswered questions that surround this subject. The questions are: will the government be able to control the nameless, faceless individuals and organisations that will step in to supply the demand for tobacco, after the legitimate companies have been legislated out of existence in the country? Who will be the target of anti-tobacco campaigns if all the legal producers are run out of business? Will smugglers be held accountable for quality standards? Will counterfeiters care about the government’s opinions on their activities? Are we blind to the fact that criminals around the world are waiting for legal, regulated tobacco producers to be run out of business so that they can step in to take over?
Tobacco control is what the campaigners and international foundations are after by pressuring governments to be rid of tobacco companies. Control is defined as “the power to influence the course of events “but looking at the example of the war on drugs it becomes apparent that real control is practically impossible where there is no entity that can be regulated. How will the government influence the course of events around tobacco supply if they are dealing with hundreds if not thousands of cottage industry tobacco producers with no hygiene or quality standards or controls?
It is unlikely that smoking will cease to be a human activity (even in our grandchildren’s lifetimes), so it is not unreasonable to imagine that even if tobacco control campaigners around the world achieve their goals, people will still smoke whatever is available to them. If we don’t stop to consider these questions seriously we risk waking up one day, decades from now, to look back and wish we had protected the legal tobacco industries if nothing else just so we could control them. We do need the tobacco control campaigners, but we need tobacco control campaigners that think.
Note: The view expressed in the article is of the writer not necessarily the author.