The government’s decision to exit the tobacco business is a welcome move. A state has, at least, a moral obligation not to manufacture and sell a product that is known to kill millions of people each year to its own citizens. The move would also allow the government to fully comply with its obligation under the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), an evidence-based tobacco control legal framework that the country ratified in 2014.
It will undoubtedly be a step forward to enforce Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC which requires the government to protect its tobacco control policies and laws from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.
However, the transfer of NTE to an experienced overseas tobacco company, Japan Tobacco International (JTI), comes with many challenges. The federal government agency, the Ethiopian Food, Medicine & Healthcare Administration & Control Authority (EFMHACA), entrusted by law to protect the public, including more than 50 million Ethiopians under the age of 18, from, amongst other things, nicotine addiction, death, disease and disability as a result of tobacco use will be particularly challenged.
NTE will likely attempt to influence the process of decision making during initiation, development, approval and implementation of tobacco control policies.
No doubt that EFMHACA’s work has been much easier when the government representatives were in NTE’s boardroom. Now, with government giving-up its remaining shares and JTI becoming the majority shareholder, we are starting to see the inception of an organised showdown with one of the favourite industry arguments: the narrative of significant illicit trade, which is very likely exaggerated, to influence policymaking.
I am not aware of any peer-reviewed publications, independent reports, or media coverages regarding the specific scale of illegal tobacco trade in Ethiopia before October 2017 when JTI was reportedly considering to acquire the government’s remaining share in NTE. It signals that other types of well-documented industry tactics are sure to come.
After the acquisition of close to 31pc of the government’s share by JTI, we have seen reports by the Reporter, an Amharic bi-weekly, where Getu Alemayehu, public relations service head at NTE, said that illicit tobacco products account for over 44pc of the entire Ethiopian market and 90pc in Eastern Ethiopia.
In this publication, entitled “Gov’t Gives Up Tobacco Monopoly for $434m” [Volume 18, No. 921, December 31, 2017], it is claimed that close to 50pc of Ethiopia’s tobacco market is illicit. The industry’s claim through press coverage is not just limited to showing how much of the market proportion is illicit.
It is intended to strike policymakers by relating the matter with Ethiopia’s national security and caution that terrorist groups may use the profit from illegal trade in tobacco products as well. It is also meant to raise eyebrows by indicating the significant loss of revenues at a time when the macroeconomy needs it most.
For some, it is likely that the tobacco industry appears a responsible company and represents a genuine data whose validity and methodology are reliable. More to it, readers may be willing to give more credit when the industry expresses its willingness to partner and offers financial and in-kind contributions to government ministries and law enforcement organs in the prevention and control of illegal trade.
However, international experience shows that the above strategy is one of the many tactics drawn from the tobacco industry’s playbook to influence public and political opinion, and weaken or, if possible, defeat an evidence-based tobacco control laws and policies intended to save millions of Ethiopians. It is well documented, and we have seen time and again, that the tobacco industry exaggerates data on illicit trade to counter policies intended to increase tobacco taxation, regarding graphic health warnings and standardised packaging of tobacco products, and other laws meant to implement the WHO FCTC.
Hence, the reliability of data and information from the tobacco industry should be seen with extreme caution, in particular by policymakers.
At this time, the industry is systematically advancing two key messages that close to 50pc of Ethiopia’s market is illicit, and strong tobacco control measures would harm legitimate businesses and benefit illegal traders. First, the data is not published nor explains the quality of the data source and methods of analysis to warrant any credibility.
For example, an independent research from the University of Bath in the UK, published in January, 2014, by the British Medical Journal, found that the many trans-national tobacco companies exaggerated the threat of illicit tobacco trade. This was to counter UK’s law on standardised packaging on tobacco products which would come into effect in 2017. Such data were mostly unverifiable, contains misleading narration, and misrepresented statistics from the government.
It is known that tobacco industries often commission surveys by hand-picked firms who are willing to produce findings in their favour. Given the known trends in other countries and the unique challenges brought by JTI in Ethiopia, I think any figure coming out from the industry should be scrutinised carefully. Ethiopia, being one of the countries with the cheapest cigarettes in Africa and lowest smoking prevalence rate, may also shed some light why the scale of illicit trade presented by the industry makes little sense.
A pack of Nyala cigarettes, which has the biggest market share (more than 87%) according to the 2016 Ethiopian Global Adult Tobacco Survey, costs between 16 to 18 Birr (around 0.70 dollars).
On the other hand, the industry’s argument that strong tobacco control laws do not achieve their intended purpose and exacerbate the proportion of illicit trade is entirely unfounded. For example, evidence from around the globe shows that increasing tobacco taxation reduces tobacco consumption and increases government revenues. However, it does not necessarily result in the increased illicit tobacco trade.
Studies show that higher rate of illegal tobacco trade is associated more with border administration and law enforcement capability regardless of the fact that the country has high or low tobacco tax. More than 100 nations have adopted some measures of tobacco tax increases during the past ten years. In the meantime, it is crucial that the government joins the WHO Protocol on Illicit Tobacco Trade which includes comprehensive, evidence-based measures to reduce illegal trade.
The Protocol, among other things, includes a trace and track system which will significantly transform government’s capability to detect counterfeit and illegal tobacco products.
Tobacco control measures that are intended to implement WHO FCTC are also useful and based on acceptable scientific evidence. For example, a large graphic health warning on tobacco product packagings is an extremely effective means of communicating the health hazards and reducing tobacco smoking and use at no cost to the government.
As of October 2016, according to the Canadian Cancer Society report, 105 countries have implemented this measure. At this time, almost 15 nations in Africa have adopted laws with graphic health warnings. Several jurisdictions are also considering adopting them.
The government, at various levels, should be prepared to respond to the diverse strategies and tactics adopted by the tobacco industry to weaken legitimate regulations. Fortunately, a useful tool to address potential deception and manipulation of the industry is at the disposal of the government. It ratified it in 2014, and Ethiopian kids, who are the likely prime target of this addictive substance, demand full implementation of the WHO FCTC.
Tedros Adhanom (PhD), director general of the WHO, and Tabaré Vázquez, president of Uruguay, have put it best when they said, “[The] industry couldn’t be trusted in the past, and it shouldn’t be trusted to do the right thing in the future.”
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