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Anti-tobacco advocates: Why push for harsh laws, ignore smuggling?

HUNGER for forbidden fruits date as far back as creation: Adam and Eve are shining examples of man’s desire for anything that is prohibited.

The need to satisfy this desire for the unattainable is one of the major motivations for smuggling.

Smuggling thrives where desired goods are unavailable or too costly to purchase; smugglers try to meet the demand for goods that are illegal, restricted, or heavily taxed, thereby creating more problems in society and effectively robbing the government of custom and excise duties due to it.

Negative effects of smuggling abound, it undermines local industry by offering lower prices for goods that are otherwise locally produced. This has a domino effect as it could lead to the collapse of local industries which in turn leads to massive loss of employment and stagnation in a country’s economic growth brought on by the destruction of its industrial base.

Smuggling is often accompanied by other related crimes which are worse, a major one almost as destructive as smuggling is counterfeiting. Smugglers aim to evade not just taxes but any bans imposed on the inferior products they smuggle into the country. Products which do not comply with quality standards or with safety requirements are smuggled in to compete with genuine products. This also has a domino effect as it inevitably affects the physical and mental health of users of the product.

All the issues highlighted above are totally ignored by tobacco control groups that increasingly call for harsh laws on tobacco in blatant disregard of the harm that can be brought on by tobacco smuggling. These groups wilfully choose to turn a blind eye to the negative consequences of over-regulating a legal tobacco industry. It is unthinkable that anti-tobacco groups would rather suppress a legitimate industry to pave the way for an illegitimate activity/industry which can only thrive at the detriment of a nation and its people.

The emergence of an illegal tobacco industry borne out of harsh restrictions on the legal industry will inevitably lead to a breakdown of control on the industry. A reduction in tobacco consumption which anti-tobacco groups claim to be the focus of their campaign will be downright unachievable as the market will be flooded with cheap and easily obtainable cigarettes; also smugglers who seek to make profit will sell their products to anybody who desires it, this will undermine the long-time efforts of the government, non-governmental organisations and the legal tobacco industry to curb smoking among youths.

Anti-tobacco groups claim that low prices of tobacco products drive increase in consumption and therefore advocate for higher taxes on tobacco products as a means of discouraging buyers. Conversely an increase in the price of tobacco products will lead to an increase in sale of cheaper tobacco products by smugglers, an increase in consumption and an increase in tobacco-induced deaths and health risks.

Laws were not made for smugglers. If they adhered to laws and restrictions, they would not be smugglers. Strict tobacco laws and restrictions will not be suffered in the black market; all the rules of responsible trade will be ignored and things will likely go from bad to worse. A thriving black market for tobacco serves as a platform for other criminal activities. Because the risk in tobacco smuggling is low, it provides easy revenue for smugglers who will then fund higher risk activities for higher financial gain. Narcotics which are smuggled along the same lines as tobacco will flood the country thus presenting a far higher risk to society in terms of health and crime.

The growth of a black market will also increase corruption in the country; smugglers usually form close associations with border security officials as well as high ranking government officials to facilitate movement of such goods and to escape justice if arrested.

One can only assume that tobacco control groups do not fully understand the implications of the stringent laws they advocate or that they care less about the mayhem which will be unleashed on the society should they achieve their goals. Regulation of the tobacco industry should be done with responsibility, caution and balance; no potential risk should be overlooked in a bid to achieve quick fixes. Advocating for harsher laws and restrictions on tobacco is a myopic and negligent approach to tobacco control. Far from being the end of the battle, it is the escalation of a raging war that will leave more soldiers wounded unintentionally.

Rushing to enact laws that will stifle an economically vibrant and legal industry will raise problems we can regret at our leisure. There is always time enough to do the right thing, time enough to take all factors into consideration. Anti-tobacco groups need to make rational decisions backed by robust reasoning, not uninformed decisions with short-term gains and far-reaching consequences.

Andy Okoh, a social critic, wrote from Lagos.


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