Economic factors can play an important role in raising tobacco taxes and advancing public health goals in LMICs

By Ayotemide Akin-Onitolo (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) and Benjamin Hawkins (University of Cambridge)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) established the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) that recommends six evidence-based tobacco control measures: monitoring tobacco use and prevention policies, protecting people from tobacco smoke, offering help to quit, warning about the dangers, enforcing advertising bans and raising taxes.

Raising taxes on tobacco is considered the most effective measure to reduce consumption; however, it is often difficult to implement because of the opposition of powerful With the vast economic and human resources available to them, the tobacco industry has been shown to expend considerable resources to protect its corporate interests. In some settings like the US, the industry successfully prevented tax increases.

Our recent article in Health Policy and Planning demonstrates how the tobacco industry also attempts to undermine tobacco control policies in Nigeria, including weakening the 1990 tobacco control decree 20 and arguing against successive policy efforts. Nevertheless, tobacco control efforts continued, suggesting the government’s commitment to FCTC compliance. In 2015, the government revised the National Tobacco Control Act, increasing restrictions on smoking and advertising. In 2016, the government raised the tobacco import duty and, in 2018, increased local excise taxes alongside other products.

The tobacco industry and its allies sought to intervene in the ensuing public debate over the taxes in an attempt to sway public opinion; however, the policy was sustained. Our article examines why these tax policy initiatives proved successful despite significant industry opposition. It analyses the efforts of multiple actors to push supporting and opposing interpretations of the policy of tax rises between 2016 and 2018, and how these efforts may have influenced the policy. Our findings suggest that economic factors were largely responsible for the success, and we identified two major themes in the discourses:

  1. Favourable political and economic climate

Shortly before the policy passed, Nigeria exited a recession that was partly attributed to the 2014-16 fall in crude oil prices globally. As the country is largely dependent on crude oil exports for income, the need to diversify its revenue base was glaring. Accordingly, the 2017 Economic Recovery Growth Plan prioritized macroeconomic stability including tax administration amongst other objectives.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also established new tobacco tax directives in 2017, raising the minimum ad valorem tax from 15% to 50% alongside other changes. These factors likely created a conducive moment for the uptake of tobacco tax raises. Advocates need to identify and leverage such opportunities for effective public health advancement.

  1. Use of evidence-based economic arguments by advocates in the public debate

In addition to the presence of a favourable economic climate for tax rises, the successful passage of this policy was influenced by the ability of advocates to provide evidence and data to support the policy in a timely manner. Policymakers were able to draw on this evidence to advance positive interpretations of the policy and secure public support. Successful arguments, put forward by tobacco control advocates and policymakers, emphasized the economic impact of tobacco consumption and quantified the anticipated revenue increment.

Advocates also used other arguments such as improving health, the vulnerability of certain population groups, and meeting international recommendations. However, on both sides of the debate, economic arguments were the most used. Whilst emphasizing the advantages of raising tobacco taxes on health, it is critical for advocates to clearly demonstrate how these taxes can impact the economy, particularly in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs) where such income may be crucial for development.


Tobacco control advocates in Nigeria can celebrate the successful passage of the tobacco tax policy, however, there is much room for progress towards fully achieving FCTC recommendations. Currently, tobacco taxes in Nigeria account for only 30% of the retail price which is considerably lower than the 75% advised by the WHO. Given the potentially positive health impact of tobacco control, more effective engagement in policy-making is required. Tobacco control advocates can tailor their use of economic and other relevant contextual factors to secure political support in Nigeria and other LMICs.


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