Musa, a 14 year old student of Government Secondary School Wuse, Abuja, said he has been smoking for five years, starting out at the tender age of 9 – when he was enrolled in the Junior Secondary School.
For Musa, smoking was not a matter of choice; cigarettes and other tobacco products could be found within his reach – just at the entrance to the school he attends. He got curious and was naïve.
“I have today become a chain smoker, I can’t do without cigarettes and same applies to most of us that you see here” he says, pointing in the direction of other students heading out haphazardly at the end of the school day.
“As many times as I try to stop smoking, it becomes more difficult”.
Musa tells me the tobacco products sold at the entrance of the school premises has become a norm in most schools. The pitch to himself and his under aged peers, was that it made them look tough and powerful.
Ahmed Isa, 25, a recent graduate could be spotted looking dazed, swaggering along the pedestrian walkway on the busy streets of Adetokunbo Ademola Crescent, Wuse 2 in Abuja. His tale was no different from what teenage Musa told me.
Ahmed admits to abusing substances and acknowledges his grave situation. “To keep my spirit high, there’s simply nothing else to do and here’s my fifth codeine bottle,” he said reaching out for an empty container of cough syrup.
According to Isa, his journey with smoking had begun as early as elementary school, where he would share cigarettes with his school mates. To this day, he is not only hooked on cigarettes, but also on drugs, which ‘keeps him up at night’.
Tobacco use by under aged persons often herald a lifelong abuse of non conventional drugs among young Nigerians. This has become an increasing trend. Ahmed revealed to me that many of his friends take anything they find to feel ‘high’ from gasoline to correction fluid, rubber solution, aerosol, nail polish removers, kerosene. “It all started with the mallam’s shop next to the school premises where we (students) turned to for our tobacco needs.”
Unfortunately, Nigeria is ill equipped to deal with these challenges.
Tobacco Retail Targets Kids
Umar Ado, 37 has been peddling biscuts in front of L.E.A primary school Kubwa Abuja. “I have been selling here for over fifteen years” he says, his shop lies adjacent the school. “Pupils come here every day to buy things before going into school and coming out”’
Ado’s shop hangs on the wall of the L.E.A Kubwa II primary school in Bwari Area Council Abuja. The shop is one of five wooden containers surrounding the school which stands somewhere at the middle of two hotels: Leisure Palace Hotel, and Jelinka Hotel, both reputed to be home to the highest number of commercial sex workers in Kubwa – a huge satellite town in Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory.
“In the morning they come to buy biscuits, in the night, they come to buy cigarettes.” Ado added. Every morning as children walk into school, the sex workers often solicit their help to purchase soaps, cigarettes and tissue papers from these outlets.
Two girls purchase utilities at a wooden shop outside L.E.A Primary School Kubwa Abuja.
Photo Credit: Tahir Sherriff
“I don’t sell to them, but a lot of people do. At night these children want to behave more maturely and they feel smoking makes them look tough.” Ado added. These retail outlets also serve the needs of households, where family members can purchase utilities.
In 2015 President Goodluck Jonathan passed the Nigerian Tobacco Control Act with key provisions including the imposition of a ban on – tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, prohibition of smoking in public places and sale of cigarettes to under aged persons. Two years later, the non-implementation of this legislation has caused many to dismiss it as merely a paper agreement.
“The people selling the cigarettes are a problem, but if you enter the school, like at the football field, you will see a lot of young boys smoking. People have taken these primary schools as places to smoke, especially the government ones that have a lot of space.” Tiamiyu Sadiq, a primary school teacher resident in the town remarked.
Students walking past a retailer’s container on 3rd Avenue, Gwarimpa Abuja.
Photo Credit: Tahir Sherriff
According to World Health Organization (WHO) 2015 estimates, over 1.1billion people smoked tobacco. Although the agency added that the figure declined worldwide and in many countries, the prevalence of tobacco smoking appears to be on the rise in the Eastern Mediterranean Region and the African Region.
In Nigeria, tobacco companies own the blame for the proliferation of tobacco products across the organic chain of retail services that support the deathly trade. Almost every school in districts and communities around the FCT have a retail shop outside for children to have access to items they need such as pencils, books and erasers as well as consumables. It is almost impossible not to find cigarettes prominently displayed next to these items.
Cigarette Retailers lodged outside L.E.A Primary School, Kubwa Abuja.
Photo Credit: Tahir Sherriff.
Motorcycle riders often pause during the day to eat and rest outside the school. They would take one or two sticks of cigarettes before returning to their posts, and it often coincides with when the school kids are out to make break time purchase.
Speaking anonymously, a teacher at the L.E.A Primary school in Kubwa lamented on the situation, and highlighted efforts being done by the school: “Well, we cannot stop them from going to buy the things they need. We have subjects like civil education that we use to teach the children about bad social behaviour, but our efforts stop at the school. We can’t control them when they leave.”
“We have been trying to dissuade all these bad boys from coming to smoke in the schools and spoiling the children, we even raised the fence and have been working to put a barbed wire, but these things take time.” She added.
Grave Implications and a Call for Action
The statistics are alarming. “Tobacco threatens us all,” former WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan once remarked. “Tobacco exacerbates poverty, reduces economic productivity, contributes to poor household food choices, and pollutes indoor air.”
Tobacco use kills more than 7 million people every year and costs households and governments over US$ 1.4 trillion through healthcare expenditure and lost productivity. Tobacco threatens the development of countries worldwide, the WHO revealed, and charged governments to take action by implementing strong tobacco control measures. These include banning marketing and advertising of tobacco, promoting plain packaging of tobacco products, raising excise taxes, and making indoor public places and workplaces smoke-free.
Civil Education alone will not suffice to deal with the use of tobacco by extremely vulnerable children exposed to tobacco promotion and retail presence across educational facilities in Nigeria.
Musa and Ahmed represent thousands of Nigerian school kids exposed to tobacco promotion and marketing. Musa is particularly worried and uncertain about his future. He has an increasing desire to smoke cigarettes and worried he cannot seek or readily obtain help. Parents are in the dark about their kid’s habitual tobacco use while more kids remain exposed.
Mercy Abang is a Journalist – Media Fixer with Sunday Times of London, BBC, Aljazeera and a former Stringer with the Associated Press – She tweets at @abangmercy..