Exactly two months ago there was huge media buzz about plans by Philip Morris International (PMI) to import cigarettes into Nigeria from neighbouring Senegal.
The imports, which public health experts described as “illegal”, were five PMI cigarettes brands which include Marlboro, Marlboro Gold, Bond Street Blue, Chesterfield Mint Burst and Chesterfield Blue. The products were to be imported into Nigeria by a PMI subsidiary – Philip Morris International Nigeria Limited (PMINTL) which was registered as a company on December 11, 2014 and by May 2015, got the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) to certify the five PMI brands to be imported into Nigeria.
Ironically, that certification was obtained the same month that the National Tobacco Control (NTC) Act was signed into law by former President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan.
Again, in July 2015, PMl, through Philip Morris Manufacturing Senegal Sarl applied for, and got approval of the Senegalese Ministry of Industry and Mines, to benefit from the ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation Scheme for the five brands.
A month after, PMINTL Nigeria Limited applied for and secured approval for the importation of the mentioned brands into Nigeria from the Federal Ministry of Finance and got approval to import 122 million “Units” of cigarette.
The products were to be imported between September 1, 2015 and March 31, 2016. A key provision of the NTC Act that experts tie their aversion to the deal to, is Section 29 which states that anyone importing cigarettes requires registration with the Ministry of Health or a license written by the Minister of Health.
There are several questions that follow: Has PMINTL infracted the law? Does the speed of the entire transaction indicate some infraction of our national laws? Since PMI subscribed to the ECOWAS TLS to avoid paying duty and other relevant taxes on the products, what does Nigeria stand to gain from the entire transaction?
It may not be wrong to say that the 122 million units of cigarettes are meant for the lungs of Nigerian youths who will get hooked to the stick in no distant time. Naturally, the multiplier effect will be felt in terms of upsurge in tobacco-induced illnesses, dislocation of families whose dependents or wards die and the economic disarticulation when a skilled worker dies from tobacco illnesses. The list can go on and on.
In all of this, the quiet on the part of PMINTL and the government agencies that hastened the transaction is a source of worry.
For those who care, if this incident goes uninvestigated it will also send a wrong message to the international community that the Nigerian government is not ready to take on Big Tobacco corporations whenever they flout the nation’s laws.
The relentless effort of the tobacco industry in undermining anti-tobacco legislation is not in Nigeria alone. In East Africa BAT was found to have bribed lawmakers to undermine tobacco control legislation. Paul Hopkins a former staff turned whistleblower made the disclosure in a widely publicized documentary aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 2015.
In the case of PMINTL alleged illegal importation of cigarettes into Nigeria, security agencies should commence investigation to ascertain the veracity and if the company is found to have breached the nation’s laws, appropriate sanctions should be imposed to send a clear message that the era of impunity is over and Nigeria. Anything short of this is an anomaly.