Tobacco sales ban has served only to enrich smugglers

Daily cigarette consumption increased slightly during the initial lockdown period, the writers says.
Daily cigarette consumption increased slightly during the initial lockdown period, the writers says.
Image: FILE

As South Africa heads into level 3 of its Covid-19 lockdown on June 1, President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised we will see most of the economy re-open, except the "sale of tobacco, tobacco products, e-cigarettes and related products".

But peoples' demands do not simply end because the government has decreed it. Instead, smokers will continue buying unsafe, low-quality cigarettes at inflated prices.

Indeed, some 90% of the respondents to a survey published last week by researchers from the Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products (Reep) at the University of Cape Town's School of Economics say that they have continued to buy cigarettes since the lockdown began, despite the ban on the sale of tobacco products.

The paper surveyed more than 16,000 smokers and received 12,204 analysable responses.

About 36% of the respondents said they smoked less than before the lockdown, but this was neatly counterbalanced by 33% of the respondents who reported that they smoked more. Daily cigarette consumption increased slightly during the initial lockdown period.

Therefore, the ban on sales has served only to enrich smugglers, illicit traders at the expense of SA's law-abiding citizens and the public purse.

The commissioner of the South African Revenue Service (Sars) Edward Kieswetter, as well as the finance minister Tito Mboweni, have both pointed out the damaging consequences of the ban on the fiscus. Sars lost more than R1.7bn in revenue from the alcohol and cigarette bans in just over 29 days in April according to Kieswetter.

This is revenue that will be permanently lost to the fiscus and which South Africans will have to fund in future (i.e the widening fiscal deficit).

This is on top of living under the worst economic circumstances since the depression.

The economic consequences run the gamut from large companies losing revenue and making fewer investments, to small informal traders who had cigarette sales as their most reliable source of income.

It is important to realise that the retail ban has put the informal traders, who typically rely on items such as airtime and cigarettes to provide a steady source of income, in an impossible position: Obey the government and go hungry, disobey the government and break the law.

Another less talked-about consequence of the blanket ban is the fact that many smokers have now been forced to return to cigarettes after quitting these for e-cigarettes or vapes, even though they are a healthier alternative to cigarettes.

Did the government seriously consider the health effects of e-cigarettes as opposed to cigarettes, in relation to Covid-19? If the regulations are guided by science, the government should not assume that e-cigarettes have the same effects as cigarettes without evidence.

Of course, the evidence that smoking aggravates the effect of Covid-19 on the body, or that it increases the rate of infection for the virus is mixed. At least 28 different studies across a range of countries have found fewer smokers among Covid-19 hospital cases than in the general population.

Greek academic cardiologist Konstantinos Farsalinos published a paper on the subject in early April.

Farsalinos noted that similar figures were found when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at 7,000 Covid-19 cases early in the pandemic. The centre found that only 1.3% of those hospitalised with the virus were smokers while 14% of all Americans regularly use tobacco products.

*Dhlamini is a freelance writer and vaper who writes about business and cultural issues

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