Cigarette ban in South Africa

Wait, not time yet! South Africa sending mixed signals to smokers

Touted over economic concerns, South Africa eases restrictions on lockdown.

South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa is yet to arrive at a suitable date when the ban on smoking will be lifted. In a written address to parliament, he detailed how the progression of covid-19 will depend on the state of preparedness of the country’s health system. 

To ward off public anxiety on the matter, he affirmed that the decision to ban smoking was based on firm consultation. 

Was there a change of heart?

The messaging coming from the South African government is confusing given their earlier intention to reverse the cigarette ban in level 3.

Annette Steyn, an MP with the D.A inquired for empirical evidence behind the collective ban of cigarettes by the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC).

Her concerns mirror those of smokers who fail to understand the contradiction in policy adjustment. She also asked for an exact date when the policy position would be lifted. 

In a statement submitted to parliament, the South African president expressed his uncertainty on when the ban can be lifted. He based the change of heart on factors such as “progression of the disease” and the “readiness” of the country’s health systems in determining the impact of the virus. 

During the April 24 address, he was optimistic over their efforts aimed at slowing the spread of the virus but continued to urge the public to wear masks when using public transport. At the end of the speech, he struggled to put on a mask, eliciting widespread mockery over social media.

The Fair-Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) is currently engaged in a legal dispute with the government over the ban. The group had distanced themselves from a WhatsApp message doing rounds that the ban would be lifted sometime this week. 

Illicit trade thrives

Smokers were denied the opportunity to buy cigarettes in shops, instead, they resort to secrecy in WhatsApp groups from dodgy retailers. Thus far, over half a million people have added their names to an online petition asking the government to ease the restrictions on the sale of cigarettes.

According to Business Insider South Africa, the cigarette ban is earning criminal syndicates R3bn a month. The ban is a big business for anyone with direct access to tobacco and an entrepreneurial spirit. A recent study by UCT reveals 90% of smokers purchased cigarettes during the lockdown period. Author of Tobacco Wars, Johann van Loggerenberg belives transnational crime syndicates are involved. 

In a nation of 7.5 million smokers, a sudden cut in the supply of cigarettes creates a huge vacuum that is filled by unscrupulous dealers who smuggle them from Zimbabwe and retail them for triple the price. The illicit cigarettes are turning up in corner cafes and spaza shops. 

On Wednesday, June 18, 46 boxes loaded with contraband cigarettes worth R1.3m were confiscated by a police patrol at the Farazella border between Mozambique and South Africa. According to Captain Anelisiwe Tamela, the SANDF spokesperson, the suspects fled the scene leaving behind the stash and an $80,000 an Isuzu bakkie. The case was tagged as part of cross-border illegal activity. 

Who are the smokers?

According to the SA Demographic and Health Survey 2016, 37% of men aged 15 and over are smokers.

The figure is much lower in women at 8%. Most smokers are within the 1 to 9 cigarettes-a-day category. For a country of the size of South Africa, this is a large number of people.

Surprisingly, the number of smokers is on the decline when compared to the figures back in 1998. Tax revenue from smoking last year was $790m meaning for every month the ban is in effect, the government losses $132m in revenues.

The ban has some support

Turns out there are voices that are strongly in favor of the ban. First, the president is convinced that the U-turn he made will advance life and human dignity rights.

Authorities believe that a reduction or quitting of cigarette smoking reduces the chances of fatalities from COVID-19. Bodies such as SAMRC, Cancer Association of South Africa, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation support the ban. 

What next for the smokers?