When lockdown commenced at midnight on Thursday, 26 March, the sale of alcohol and tobacco products were deemed “non-essential.” While not much information was put forth as to why the ban was put in place, research by the World Health Organization (WHO) states that cigarettes are addictive and gravely reduces lung capacity. This is an important factor in the fight against Covid-19, as the disease attacks the respiratory system, causing severe lung damage, according to medical professionals.
Another reason for the ban is to limit the need for people to head out to the shops, says Minister of Trade and Industry, Ebrahim Patel.”On the items that people can buy, obviously we wanted to keep the list as short and simple as possible so that we can do a quick turn around at shops and ensure people spend the minimum amount of time there, and travel as infrequently to the shops as possible. Cigarettes are not a basic good.”
However, smokers and the tobacco industry were once again left disappointed when government officials announced a U-turn on lifting the ban as the country eased into level 4 of lockdown from 1st May.
Cabinet minister Nkosana Dlammini-Zuma, who is a medical doctor and also a key member of a special cabinet task force handling the crisis, clarified the reason for the backtrack with commentary about how rolled cigarettes are shared, and promote socialisation. "The way tobacco is shared does not allow for social distancing," said Dlamini-Zuma, adding, “it actually encourages the spread of the virus."
But while the ban was a measure to hinder the virus, it has actually given rise to another problem: Cigarette smuggling.
Sinenhlanhla Mnguni, chairperson of Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (FITA) said South Africa has always had a smuggling problem. “ However, during the lockdown, it has grown in magnitude. People are still smoking on the same level that they were before the lockdown,” he said.
The increase in illicit cigarette trade, which is being run by gangs and criminals, poses additional threats to society and brings danger into communities.
In fact, a study by researchers at the University of Cape Town has revealed some poignant statistics. Titled Lighting up the illicit market, the paper shows the ban has had the following effects:
- Caused almost 50% of South African smokers to switch from multinational brands to local brands.
- Caused a hyperinflation of cigarettes prices in which prices skyrocketed by 4.4% per day.
- Has become a catalyst for a post lockdown price war, which will “ultimately lead to increased cigarette consumption in South Africa.”
- Created a boom in the informal retail sector, with two-thirds of smokers now buying cigarettes from informal traders such as spaza shops.
- Has made streets vendors a key source of cigarettes for 26% of smokers.
- Hindered the progress made by the South African Revenue service to weed out illegal cigarette traders, and has given illicit traders a platform to compete where they previously couldn’t.
- Created a thriving black market that emcompasses friends, family, WhatsApp groups and essential worker acquaintances.
Then, in a subsequent national address on Sunday 24 May, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced lockdown restrictions will be eased into Level 3 from first 1 June, opening up almost all sectors of the economy and lifting the ban on alcohol. However, much to the surprise of the public, the ban on tobacco products is still being enforced. He said the decision was linked to the health risks associated with smoking.
This has left the tobacco industry seething, with many companies now planning to take legal action.
Asanda Gcoyi, chief executive of the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (Vpasa), said: The association is extremely disappointed by the government’s ongoing refusal to allow the sale of tobacco products as it means the alternative of electronic vapour products will also still be banned. Additionally, no organisations within the nicotine industry were consulted in the drafting of the Level 3 regulations.
“In addition to the fiscus losing millions of rands in unpaid taxes, this decision has allowed the illegal trade of cigarettes and vape products to flourish, with law enforcement wasting precious resources on fining and arresting citizens who are normally law-abiding.
“The tobacco ban fails to take harm reduction into account. As the continuous illegal trade during Levels 5 and 4 of this lockdown have shown, many nicotine consumers are either unable or unwilling to kick the habit. Our view is that the government should allow online trade of vaping products. If implemented correctly, it will ensure people do not congregate unnecessarily and will prevent the creation and trade of home-made and black-market products.”
In addition, FITA has now launched a court bid to have cigarettes and tobacco products declared essential goods. The government had until 26 May to submit the reasons behind the decision.
"We have previously attempted to engage with government. There has been a clear reluctance to engage the industry, an industry which contributes billions to the economy," Mnguni said shortly after the announcement.
The government has yet to respond to any backlash or pressure to retract the ban. However, in light of mounting illegal trade and evidence to refute the health link between smoking and Covid-19, it is only a matter of time before they may need to rethink their decision.