Why government must lift the ban on tobacco sales

If government's intention with the tobacco ban was to reduce the number of smokers in SA and/or ameliorate the negative consequences when smokers fall prey to the ravages of Covid-19, the aspiration clearly failed, the writers say.
If government's intention with the tobacco ban was to reduce the number of smokers in SA and/or ameliorate the negative consequences when smokers fall prey to the ravages of Covid-19, the aspiration clearly failed, the writers say.
Image: Katarzyna Białasiewicz/ 123RF Stock Photo

On April 15, a shopkeeper in Kalbaskraal, Malmesbury, in the Western Cape, was stabbed to death for refusing to sell cigarettes.

Tobacco is addictive, and nicotine withdrawal can cause severe cravings, irritability and anxiety.

Amid the heavy burden of gender-based violence, and with men forming the bulk of smokers, women and children may well bear the brunt of mood swings and withdrawal outbursts.

Despite several calls by smokers and the legal tobacco industry, on April 29, government confirmed its uncompromising stance on the ban. Strangely, this announcement follows only six days after President Cyril Ramaphosa declared that government planned to lift the tobacco ban as SA entered level 4 of lockdown on May 1.

Unsurprisingly, there was a collective sigh of relief among smokers at the time, only for that to turn to disgust and outrage on social media over the authorities' about-turn.

Despite wide support for the nationwide lockdown, the tobacco ban has pitched SA's estimated seven million smokers firmly against government, thus shedding light on the social contract between smokers and the state.

SA has some of the strictest tobacco laws worldwide, and smokers in general comply with this legislation. It is not against the law to smoke, however, buying illicit tobacco products is.

It is estimated that the illegal tobacco industry contributes to government losses of R7bn a year. During the lockdown ban on the sale of legal tobacco products, the fiscus is losing about R35m a day in tax revenue, which amounts to R1.2bn over the initial five-week ban.

Uncertainty about the length of level 4 lockdown restrictions makes it impossible to calculate further losses. Every rand counts in our fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, considering the fact that our cash-strapped government plans to borrow almost R400bn from various international lenders to foot the bill for the coronavirus response.

Furthermore, when something that one values as positive is removed and replaced by something negative, the situation increases stress.

Government's refusal to entertain the pleas of smokers to purchase legal tobacco and the accompanying whimsical restrictions of what amounts to an extended lockdown add to smokers' stress, with withdrawal symptoms compounding an already vexing situation.

Prolonged stress leads to frustration, which turns into anger. These emotions are intensified when a sanction is seen as unjustified, when one has little control over the situation and when there are few checks and balances to prevent criminal behaviour.

In order to navigate their subjective stress and anger, smokers are left with very few options - either ration current stock, quit smoking or source tobacco illegally.

The facts are that most smokers have run out of stock and the difficulty of quitting the habit is well documented. The result is that smokers have turned to the illicit tobacco trade, thus feeding organised crime.

What government further seems to ignore is that, although smoking is harmful to one's health, illegal tobacco is manufactured without any quality control measures, which further heightens the health risks of smoking.

The solution to the problem is clear: government must lift the ban on tobacco sales. If government's intention with the tobacco ban was to reduce the number of smokers in SA and/or ameliorate the negative consequences when smokers fall prey to the ravages of Covid-19, the aspiration clearly failed.

*Steyn and Klopper are with the University of Pretoria's department of social work and criminology

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