Tobacco ban shrouded in smoke

Chocolate on a supermarket shelf that normally stocks cigarettes. Picture: KAREN WATKINS

Tobacco remains banned under South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown, but cigarettes are readily available, including in Parow and
Goodwood. 

Meanwhile, the fiscus is losing R35 million a day in taxes, according to British
American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA).

On Friday
August 7, judgment was reserved in the case between BATSA and the Cooperative
Governance and Traditional Affairs Department (COGTA).

Northern
News hit the streets to investigate. We were looking for shops selling cigarettes. It took less
time to find one than to light up a smoke.

At the first
of ten shops we visited, the owner said he would rather sell cigarettes than be
looted. He would not say who is supplying him; instead he shook his hand dismissively.

All shops had
packets and loose cigarettes for sale and people were seen smoking in the
street. While none of the popular brands such as Peter Stuyvesant, Marlboro or
Camel were available, cheaper, unknown brands were easy to come by. The going
rate for packets ranged from R40 to R60 while loose cigarettes sold for between
R3 to R4. 

In the
second shop, R75 was the price for packet of Chicago, compared to brand names that
normally sell for between R35 and R40. Richmond is cheaper at R60, and loose
cigarettes sell for about R5 each. 

At another
shop, when we tried to bargain the price, the cashier said refugees at Paint City
were paying over R9 each for single cigarettes but are now paying R25 to R35
for one. Northern News could not confirm this.

In the Parow precinct, a trader said he paid between RR120 and R145 for a packet of 20 cigarettes during the first two months of lockdown. Now he pays R45 for VIP brand to someone selling from the “back door”. He made 100% profit and sold all his stock in less than 10 minutes, he said. He wanted to quit smoking but he would do so when he was ready and not when the
government told him, he said. People were addicted to nicotine, he said, and they became aggressive if they didn’t have it.

His wife
said she understood why alcohol was banned, because excessive liquor
could cause violence against women and children, but smoking cigarettes did no harm,
she said.

While
talking to the traders, Northern News saw a homeless man ask a passerby for his
cigarette butt, which he then took a drag on. In May, Cogta Minister Nkosazana
Dlamini Zuma outlined the reasoning behind the decision to ban tobacco products. It
went viral. Reasons included people rolling cigarettes and licking rolling
paper, also that people, particularly in poor communities, shared cigarettes and
tobacco products.

An
independent study by UCT’s Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products
(REEP) shows a 430% increase in the number of people sharing cigarettes, and
“potentially exposing themselves to Covid-19”. This is largely due to the high
price of the illicit products, which on average are 250% higher than the pre-lockdown
price, according to BATSA.

Pick n Pay
chairman Gareth Ackerman entered the fray, saying tobacco and liquor
remained readily available on the black market. “So the policy achieves no end
other than to fuel illegal activity which ignores any regulatory safeguards and
contributes not a single cent to the beleaguered tax service, which desperately
needs the revenue for the state to meet its socio-economic obligations.”

The SA
Tobacco Transformation Alliance (SATTA), which represents tobacco farmers, processors and manufacturers, says more than 296 000 people’s livelihoods
are at stake, many
of them are small business owners. 

And a Human
Sciences Research Council (HSRC) report conducted in April says one in five South Africans smoke and some one in ten smokers can get cigarettes during lockdown.

Northern
News asked Parow and Goodwood police if they had arrested anyone for violating the tobacco ban. Police spokesman Warrant Officer Wayne Theunis said they couldn’t discuss cases that fell under the Disaster Management Act, and he referred us to provincial SAPS. After numerous phone calls and emails, no
response has been provided.

When we asked the owner of the first shop we visited if police had checked on tobacco sales, he smiled and asked us where we thought police bought their cigarettes.

In the
latest court case, BATSA is arguing that the ban is impinging on people’s
constitutional rights. In response, Cogta referred to research, including that done by the World Health Organization, showing smokers are at high risk of contracting respiratory
diseases. 

It is not known yet when judgment in the case will be delivered.