The World Health Organisation (WHO) designates May 31st each year as World No Tobacco Day (WNTD). The theme of this year’s commemoration, “Protecting youth from industry manipulation and preventing them from tobacco and nicotine use”, emphasizes the importance of the youth in the war against tobacco use and addiction.
How deliberate the tobacco industry is in wooing this productive segment of the world’s population to their harmful products is contained in their own internal documents which reveal that, starting from concept to product designs, and marketing campaigns, capturing the youth as replacement for a dying generation of older smokers is primary.
Because of this, the three planks on which the WHO counter-marketing campaign to mark the year 2020 WNTD rest on:
. Unmasking the myths and manipulation tactics of the tobacco and nicotine industries-is the nicotine industry separate?, especially those that deceive the youth;
. Equipping the youth with the knowledge of the tobacco and nicotine industry’s intentions and tactics; and Empowerment of influencers to protect the youth and fight against Big Tobacco.
Just like most low- and middle-income countries, Nigeria is one of the countries where the tobacco industry is practically on the loose through numerous marketing strategies and so-called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities.
Because of what public health experts believe is a mistaken sense of what an investment represents, Nigeria welcomed British American Tobacco (BAT) into the country in 2001. This grand entry set the tone for Philip Morris which also pitched its tent in the country a little over a decade later.
But even as far back as 2002, the youth-focus of the tobacco industry in Nigeria had become all too evident to the public health community: Billboards started springing up across the length and breadth of the country promoting different cigarette brands. Exploiting the Brand Nigeria initiative of the government of the day, the tobacco industry also sponsored film shows, music concerts and fashion shows where their different brands and colours were promoted to and by unsuspecting youth. Nigerians still remember “Wild and Wet”, “Golden Tones”, “Buy One and Get One Free Campaign”, “Loud in Lagos” and Experience It”, among a host of others between 2001 and 2004.
Many still remember how the media unknowingly promoted the industry charade. In 2004 when the Nigerian government finally clamped down on tobacco adverts on radio and television, through an Advertising Practitioners Council (APCON) Directive, the industry smartly veered into indirect advertising and so-called scholarship programmes targeting children from typically tobacco growing areas of the country.
Fast forward to 2008, another youth-focused initiative – “Experience Freshness”, which activists at the time described as secret smoking parties commenced. It was alleged that at the parties which were organized by BAT Nigeria, first time smokers were recruited. It was also reported that at the venues, there were no checks to ascertain the ages of the youth invitees. Between 2008 and 2009 the secret parties were staged in Sokoto, Lagos, Kano, Ilorin, Abeokuta, Akure and Ibadan.
Outcry by civil society and the public health community forced the company to stop the parties but this has not stopped them from adopting more covert approaches to sustaining their chokehold on the levers that reach the youth. The advent of social media seems to have provided a more subtle and convenient way of directly reaching their target – the youth.
As the number of Nigerian youth turning to these initiatives grows, the Nigerian government must come out more decisive and begin enforcing the National Tobacco Control Act 2015 and its Regulations. Provisions that specifically target the youth, especially the ban sale of cigarettes to and by minors, ban on sale of cigarettes in single sticks and the introduction of approved Graphic Health Warnings (GHWs) on tobacco packs must come on stream immediately.
The Nigerian government must also beam its torchlight on the industry’s marketing strategies that make the youth look up to tobacco corporations and their proxies for entrepreneurial guidance. These must be discontinued in view of their deceptive goal of portraying tobacco entities as socially acceptable or socially responsible.
Youth groups involved in tobacco control must also be encouraged and funded to expand their scope beyond tertiary institutions all the way down to secondary and primary school levels. As we continue stressing that the youth are the future leaders, we must remember that the future we want for them and the one they dream for themselves begins with what they imbibe today.
A tobacco-free generation is a healthy and productive generation!