False attitude up in smoke

Tobacco Institute of South Africa boss Francois van der Merwe was at his charming best when he complimented ANC MP Wendy Matsemela on how attractive she looked on Wednesday.

Tobacco Institute of South Africa boss Francois van der Merwe was at his charming best when he complimented ANC MP Wendy Matsemela on how attractive she looked on Wednesday.

She looked "just as attractive" as she had the day before, he said.

Van der Merwe seemed imbued with the spirit of reconciliation, of drawing closer together with MPs.

Later, in his presentation to MPs, he spoke of the close relationship the industry has with the South African Revenue Services and the treasury - the R8 billion the industry pays yearly in taxes and its deep commitment to rooting out cigarette smuggling.

A pity then that he had failed to secure a meeting with Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang - despite trying for a decade.

But to rewind a little: in response to Van der Merwe's compliment, Matsemela barely smiled.

On the one hand she might have felt it was an inappropriate public display of affection and best left for a talk over tea or coffee in the corridors.

But she is more likely to have felt she was not going to be charmed into taking it easy with her line of questioning of the tobacco industry regarding tough new laws.

It was clear to everyone, except perhaps to the hapless Van der Merwe, that he was treading on dangerous ground and that it would soon blow up in his face. Women MPs in parliament generally do not want to be patronised in this manner.

And so it happened. Van der Merwe started complaining about the new draft law that will virtually ban advertising by tobacco companies - how the industry's rights were being infringed and the "serious problem" they would experience.

Matsemela pounced, telling Van der Merwe he shouldn't be making legal threats and that he'd not changed tack since discussions started on the Tobacco Products Control Amendment Bill.

Then, in a little sub-plot, DA MP Gareth Morgan intervened, no doubt to emphasise his party's pro-big business stance. He told Matsemela that Van der Merwe had every right to turn to the law and that she was threatening him.

At this point committee chairman James Ngculu had to bring an end to it all, telling Morgan he should not act as a solicitor for the industry, and that all this bantering defeated the spirit in which he wanted discussions to be held.

Ngculu is a soft-spoken man, but is well-known for his toughness.

If Van der Merwe thought he would get it easy, he was wrong. Ngculu was adamant that the law was going to close the loopholes for the industry - especially the manner in which tobacco companies hold beach and nightclub parties for smokers only.

These were "subtle advertising" and "nuanced tricks the industry used to circumvent legislation".

Ngculu also emphasised that the Scorpions had recently uncovered possible corruption in the industry involving smuggled cigarettes.

And so, in just a few minutes, it was clear this would be no love affair. Smokers beware.

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