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Public health jeopardised by greed of global death merchants

Sokari Ekine interviews Tunji Buhari, an environmental campaigns worker for Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Friends of the Earth, Nigeria. Buhari is based in Lagos and has been working with ERA on their anti-tobacco campaign.

Sokari Ekine: The Anti-Tobacco campaign in Nigeria is fairly new. Can you give us some background on the campaign? When it started and why at that particular time?

Tunji Buhari: Tobacco is the only known product that kills half of its users when used as prescribed by the manufacturer. It kills over 10,000 persons a day and 4.5 million people a year. Sadly, 70 percent of this figure is from developing countries. If the current trends continue, the figure is anticipated to rise to 10 million a year by 2030. In Nigeria, commercial growing of tobacco started in 1934 when British American Tobacco (BAT) decided to source tobacco leaf locally in preparation for the establishment of a cigarette plant in Ibadan in 1937. BAT has been a part owner of the moribund Nigeria Tobacco Company (NTC). Tobacco cultivation first started in Ogbomosho, Iseyin and Ago Are, all in the old Oyo State, before spreading to the northern part of the country. But before the BAT onslaught, tobacco growing in the country was at its lowest. On September 24, 2001 at an event dubbed the Nigerian Investment Summit held at Park Lane Hotel [in] London, British American Tobacco (BAT) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Government of Nigeria to build a US$ 150 million ultra-modern cigarette manufacturing plant in Ibadan, Oyo State, south-west Nigeria. At the event, the Nigerian government and the tobacco mogul reached a consummated agreement for the removal of all barriers to BAT's war on public health and the globalisation of death, poverty and diseases. In the calculation of BAT strategists, the Nigerian market is the most crucial in Africa for the company to survive. The anti-tobacco policies of its home country and those being introduced by the European Union were suffocating BAT. In their desperation to explore Nigeria's huge market possibilities, the tobacco giants have facilitated massive smuggling, introduced sophisticated advertisement and overwhelming marketing gimmicks. Tobacco, in addition to being a public health disaster, exerts negative impact on national development, the economy, environment and social well-being of persons. It is a purveyor of poverty by promoting irrational allocation of resources. It also compounds Third World economic problems as the short term benefits of the whole tobacco trade go only into the vaults of Western business moguls. The anti-tobacco project of the Environmental Rights Action (ERA) and Friends of the Earth, Nigeria, is a resistance to the contrivance of tobacco transnational led by British American Tobacco (BAT) to reduce Nigeria to a haven of rejected products and its people to pawns on the chessboard of corporations. The anti-tobacco campaign takes root in ERA's mission of exposing negative corporate practices and facilitating the enactment of effective policies for sustainable development. And in the tobacco case, policies that will create the needed supportive environment to enable Nigerians live healthy lives and be protected from the greed of global death merchants.

SE: What is the aim of the campaign and how does it relate to other environmental issues in Nigeria?

TB: The aim of the campaign is to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke by promoting the national tobacco control bill in the parliament in order to reduce continually and substantially the prevalence of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke. Every aspect of cigarette production is a contributory factor to environmental degradation. Clearing of land for tobacco farming, cutting wood to cure leaves and for making paper for packaging cigarette, leads to deforestation and other environmental blight. For the production of the "flue-cured" tobacco [at] BAT's Training and Demonstration Centre in Iseyin, Oyo State, huge mass[es] of wood dot all the curing barns in the facility. In curing tobacco leaves, they are first stacked on poles, where heat from the wood is directed at them over a minimum one week period. Cutting of trees for tobacco curing accounts for 1.6 percent of loss around the world with most occurring in developing countries. Also some of the chemicals used in the cultivation of tobacco like, methylbromide destroy the environment by killing nematodes and other soil organisms. Recently the capital Abuja was declared a "smoke free zone".

SE: How difficult has it been to achieve this - what sort of response did you get from the Federal Territory, the Federal Government and people respectively?

TB: On June 1, 2008, the Federal Capital Territory declared all public places smoke free. Abuja is going smoke free is as a result of our work and commitment over the past years to ensure that everyone breaths a safer air. The need to protect the non-smoking public from the dangers associated with cigarette smoking makes it necessary for the enforcement of the ban on smoking in public places. There is evidence that shows that exposure to Second-hand smoke can cause diseases and death. Second-hand smoke is a combination of the smoke which a smoker exhales and the one that comes out of the burning end of a cigarette. This second-hand smoke is also known as the Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS) or passive smoking. Tobacco is a complex mixture of about 4,000 cancer causing chemicals that are extremely harmful to the body. It has also been confirmed that for every eight smoker[s] who die, one innocent bystander also dies from second-hand smoke and if one is exposed to second-hand smoke for about 120 minutes, then the person must have smoked [the] equivalent of four cigarettes. Second-hand smoke is as deadly as the real tobacco smoke. Because of these negative effects of smoking on non-smokers the smoke free Abuja will put public health above profits made from selling cigarettes. It will reduce the rate of smoking especially among the young and underage people who are actually the target of the tobacco companies. Smoke free public places will make the environment cleaner and residents can breathe safer air. The benefits of also going smoke free will help towards achieving the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving poverty by 2015. Because money spent on tobacco products will help provide food and shelter for families. So far so good, the responses and support from the Federal Capital Territory, Federal Government has been very encouraging. And also the massive media enlightenment campaign to inform residents about the enforcement has also been commendable.

SE: What technologies such as the internet and mobile phones have you used in the tobacco campaign and how effective have they been?

TB: ERA have been using internet and mobile phones in campaign[s] and launch[ing] her Anti-Tobacco Campaign on mobile phones last year. The introduction of mobile phones into [the] ERA tobacco campaign project came after the participation in a mobile activists’ workshop in Nairobi, Kenya on how to use ICT to press for a policy change. The mobile phone introduction is part of ERA's culture of providing hidden facts behind corporate maneuvers so that Nigerian policy makers can make informed decisions. It is to also create awareness about the hazards of smoking to Nigerians through SMS and also sending some tips to smokers on how to kick out the habit of smoking. In the same vein, ERA has set up a hotline anti-tobacco campaign which is toll free for all Nigerians to ask questions and receive feedback on the dangers of smoking. The hotline is designed to answer questions on the dangers of tobacco use through SMS.

SE: What lessons have you learned about using mobile phones as a campaigning tool?

TB: Clearly, mobile phones have played a key role in the tobacco control as a means of communication about the tobacco epidemic in an accurate, realistic and less expensive way. Mobile phone[s] ha[ve] been used to create awareness about the hazards of smoking to Nigerians through SMS in tips to smokers on how to kick out the habit of smoking. The introduction of mobile phones has had a huge impact on the populace judging from the numbers of phone calls and responses we have been receiving.

SE: ERA has for many years worked in the Niger Delta with local human rights activists and communities against the environmental crimes committed by oil multinationals. Have you thought of using mobile phones to document environmental abuses such as oil spillages and fires?

TB: Yes. In 2007 ERA launched a toll-free Green Lines to report ecological disasters in any community. If there is any ecological threat in a community whether pipeline ruptures, fires, pollution or any activity that threatens the environment, the Green Lines are toll-free.

SE: What SMS platform do you use for your environmental campaigns and how effective are they?

TB: We use 2cheapsms platform for our campaign, which provides the simplest and easiest way to send individualised bulk messages (SMS) to a group of people.

SE: What other sectors, besides tobacco control and the mining / petroleum sector, is ERA involved with?

TB: ERA Programme areas include: natural resources and community conservation, energy and mining, environmental education and mining, tobacco control, democracy outreach, trade and development, gender, genetically-modified organisms, legal resources, and media and publications. Nigeria has a very poor infrastructure and electricity provision is a major problem.

SE: What are the technological challenges you face as an organisation and as a staff member on a day to day basis due to the poor infrastructure?

TB: The cost effectiveness - I mean the outrageous tariff charges of the mobile network provider. Lack of electricity which we use to charge mobiles phones for our campaign are [also] not available, [so] we run on generator most [of the] time. Also network problem[s] which make it difficult to reach some of our local people. [And] illiteracy: judging from past experience, a lot of people don't know how to use their mobile phones to send and read SMS in English.

SE: Why did you get into working on environmental issues?

TB: I ha[d] been hearing about the environmental degradation going in the Niger Delta for so many years but I was totally committed to the environmental issues when I read a book titled: Where vultures feast: 40 years of Shell in the Niger Delta by Oronto Douglas and Ike Okonta. The book revealed so many human rights atrocities committed by the multinational oil companies, especially Royal Dutch/Shell who is the operating company of the largest oil-producing joint venture in Nigeria. Shell accounts for some 50 percent of oil production in the country, the bulk of it in the Niger Delta where the company opened its first well in 1958.

* Sokari Ekine is a Nigerian social justice activist and blogger. She writes an award winning blog, Black Looks, which she set up over four years ago, writing on a range of topics such as LGBTI rights in Africa, gender issues, human rights, the Niger Delta, and land rights.
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