In this interview with Eromosele Abiodun, the Legal and External Affairs Director of British American Tobacco West Africa, Freddy Messanvi, speaks on the menace of illicit trade in tobacco and the company’s efforts in ensuring that cigarettes are kept out of the reach of minors. Excerpts:
In spite of remarkable progress made recently in stemming illicit trade in tobacco products in the Nigerian market, smuggling remains a major challenge. What advice can you offer in curtailing tobacco smuggling into the country?
Illicit trade has been a challenge for centuries. Virtually every country in the world contends with the problem of illicit trade in one form or another, especially in the commodities market. In the tobacco industry, illicit trade is very lucrative for smugglers as cigarettes are very portable and can easily be carried across borders. It is motivated by the nation’s porous borders and corrupt practices of some officials. For some years now, stakeholders in the tobacco business have been pushing for more stringent measures to stem illegal trade in tobacco as the practice has the capacity of crippling a nation’s economy financially, especially through tax evasion and the avoidance of duty payment. It also poses a significant risk to public health considering that smuggled products are unregulated while the source is untraceable and quality standards are compromised. A consensus among stakeholders in the industry is imperative, including the anti-tobacco coalition group, on the need to curb illicit trade in tobacco in order to protect government revenues, public health, and commercial investments. The Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) and other stakeholders in the industry should continue to fight against illicit trade in tobacco. The reason why we constantly advocate a campaign on illicit trade is that we believe it will clearly prevent youth access to smoking as well as ensure legal and regulated trade of products to adult consumers who have made a choice to smoke.
Agitation for the implementation of the National Tobacco Control Act (NTCA), particularly public smoking regulation, has reached a fever pitch. What is BATN’s position on this?
BATN has always expressed strong support for a fair and balanced regulation of the industry. We participated in the processes that facilitated the NTCA, which was enacted in 2015. We understand how sensitive our business is and the critical nature of our products and have always supported the regulation of the industry. We also believe that our products should be marketed and sold in a responsible manner. This includes ensuring that they are not accessible in any way or form to children or persons under the legally acceptable age.
How has the company been working with stakeholders to ensure the success of NTCA?
BATN is willing and open to working with all stakeholders in the industry, especially the law enforcement agencies in the country, in ensuring that the NTCA is successfully implemented. We always ensure that we operate within the legal environment. We constantly strive to ensure our trade marketing representatives and stakeholders do not sell, market or promote smoking in any way to underage persons. We also strongly canvass that all our business partners agree to these terms and provisions in the NTCA before they do business with us.
How will you describe the regulatory environment for the tobacco industry in Nigeria?
The regulatory environment is conducive for our industry, there is however a need to continually drive for a balance in the way it is implemented and communicated to key stakeholders such as consumers, enforcers, agencies and the general public. It is imperative for all stakeholders to operate according to global best practices and to abide by the local laws and regulations of markets in which they operate. We support all regulations that are progressive and promote the ease of doing business in Nigeria.
The inauguration of BATN Head Office and West African operational office, in Lagos, two years ago, was greeted as a major milestone and a confirmation of the company’s commitment to foreign direct investment in the country. How does BATN hope to consolidate on this?
BATN has always expressed an unwavering support for the Nigerian economy. The inauguration of our head office and West African operational base in Nigeria is not only a confirmation of our commitment to foreign direct investment in the country but also an indication that we have come to stay. Doing business in Nigeria may come with a host of challenges, but we have been able to maintain our leadership position. We have had an operational presence in Nigeria since 1912 and became incorporated in 2000. In 2001, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Federal Government of Nigeria for an investment of $150 million to build a state-of-the-art-factory in Ibadan, Oyo State and today we are still standing strong. Over the years, we have been able to consolidate our initial investments by investing more in the Nigerian economy to ensure socio-economic and environmental development, especially in the agricultural sector in rural communities.
There is an increased global campaign on tobacco harm reduction and reduced risk product development? How is BATN keying into this? How viable are the safer alternatives to cigarettes, such as e-cigarettes, in the Nigerian tobacco market?
We spend a lot of time and resources on the development and provision of safer alternatives as they are believed to offer a 95% reduction in health risk. As a responsible global company, we proactively develop new products that offer better performance and improved harm reduction to give our adult consumers a variety of options. Nigerian consumers are very health conscious and in tune with global trends, this creates a growing appetite for innovative products with improved satisfaction delivery such as e-cigarettes.
Talk to us about the contribution of BATN to the national anti-youth smoking campaign.
We pride ourselves as a responsible corporate citizen in Nigeria operating within the confines of the law. For this reason, we remain fully committed to the prevention of youth smoking in Nigeria. BATN has been proactive in its campaign against any form of youth smoking and has over the years been a strong advocate championing the prevention of not only underage smoking but also the use of underage persons in the sale of tobacco products in the country.Youth Smoking Prevention (YSP) is an issue of mutual concern to us and to our stakeholders in Nigeria. We educate our retailers not to sell to underage persons; and we partake in annual YSP campaigns in Nigeria while supporting similar initiatives nationwide. In demonstration of our dedication to this cause, we held a stakeholders’ dialogue session on the issue in 2011. We also cooperated fully with the National Assembly in the enactment of the National Tobacco Control Act (NTCA), supported their stance on prevention of underage access to tobacco products in any form and have continuously pledged our unreserved allegiance to the enforcement of youth access laws as contained in the NTCA. One of the core beliefs that guide our business operations under our international marketing principle is that we do not sell our products or market same to underage persons as prescribed by law.