Govt hits tobacco companies with whopping law suit

The Nigerian federal government filed a suit in the High Court of Abuja on Tuesday against tobacco companies British-American Tobacco, Philip Morris International, and International Tobacco Ltd., seeking US$42.4 billion in reparations for damage they have caused to Nigerians’ health.

The number of Nigerians who smoke exceeds 30 million, according to a recent study by the Nigerian non-governmental organization Environmental Rights Action. There are no comprehensive studies on the effects that smoking has on Nigerians’ health but the government is requested $34.4 billion of $42.4 billion in anticipation of the future cost of treating patients with tobacco related illnesses.

Another $1.04 billion is requested as a fine for the companies’ actions. The Attorney General’s office filed the case in reaction to an advertising and marketing campaign allegedly targeting Nigerian youth.

Civil society groups claim that tobacco companies are seeking to grow their markets in Africa and Asia in response to a spate of lawsuits and tougher regulations in the US and Europe.

A spokesman for the International Center for Nigerian Law said the latest case against the tobacco companies could break new ground in corporate responsibility in Nigeria. “This issue is finally trickling down from the first world,” he said, referring to similar law suits against the industry in the US.

The Nigerian government has called for an injunction in the marketing, distribution and selling of tobacco products, particularly in areas such as schools and hospitals where minors are present.

The government has also asked the companies to fund a public awareness campaign to educate Nigerians about the potentially harmful effects of their products. Lawyer Maryam Uwais, who is representing the government, faults tobacco companies for failing to educate youth about potential health risks.

Likewise, she said that cigarettes are being given to youth in rural areas for free at football matches and other social events. “They are trying to get the younger generation addicted,” said Uwais. “We want to stop them from doing what they are doing.”

Tuesday’s filing is the latest in a series of suits against tobacco companies operating in Nigeria.

In May, the Lagos State government requested $21.6 billion to compensate the state for the cost of treating tobacco related illness. The state government claims that such illnesses kill two people everyday in Lagos hospitals, costing 316,000 naira (about $2,500) a month. The number of smokers increases by 20 percent every year in the state, the Lagos government said.

Gombe State and Kano State have also filed similar petitions.

Akinbode Oluwafemi of Environmental Rights Action (ERA) says the government may also be partially to blame for Nigerians’ consumption of tobacco. The government offered tobacco giants concessions to setup their operations in Nigeria.

In late October, ERA berated British-American Tobacco, which controls about 70 percent of the market in Nigeria, for asking the government for further tax breaks on the grounds that it had contributed to the growth of the Nigerian economy. “Governments around the world are raising taxes to discourage sales, and now British-American Tobacco is asking us to give them tax waivers,” Oluwafemi said.

The new government, inaugurated in May, has set up the Presidential Review Committee on Waivers, Concessions and Incentives to review such concessions and Oluwafemi sees the new court case as a sign that the government may stop pandering to the tobacco companies. “Now we have a government that can connect democracy with public health,” he said.

But some advocates are concerned that Nigeria’s judiciary may make matters worse. “There are a lot of technical hitches that this case will face,” says Shehu Sani, a human rights activist who has organized demonstrations against international pharmaceutical company Pfizer for allegedly failing to live up to safety standards in clinical trials of the meningitis drug Trovan. He worries that if the government cannot produce strong medical evidence against the companies, the case will set back anti-tobacco regulations for years.

ERA’s Oluwafemi says that efforts are underway in the Nigerian legislature to toughen regulations against tobacco companies. However there are already two tobacco laws, neither of which has been strongly enforced.

Another worry is that the lawsuits will deter multinationals from operating in Nigeria. Companies are not warned to change their behaviour before being taken to court, said Michael Adekunle, who hopes to open a pharmaceutical plant in Nigeria.

British-American Tobacco opened a manufacturing plant in Oyo state in 2003, employing about 900 workers. Most of the cigarettes are sent for export to other West African countries, said a company spokesperson.

He declined to comment on the new lawsuit against the company until the case had been served. Judge Binta Murtala Nyako ordered it served in time for the case to reconvene on 14 January 2008.