Informal trade asks: Does the Department of Health even know what its own Tobacco Bill means?

The Bill will ban the display of all tobacco products. Think about what this means to the informal trade. How will our customers know what we are selling if we can’t display our stock?, asks the author. Photographer: racey Adams

The Bill will ban the display of all tobacco products. Think about what this means to the informal trade. How will our customers know what we are selling if we can’t display our stock?, asks the author. Photographer: racey Adams

Published Aug 8, 2023


By Rosheda Muller

This week, after substantial public pressure from informal traders and other affected parties, the Department of Health extended the comment period for public submissions on the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill, by 30 days, to September, 4, 2023.

This extension is most welcome, as the Bill contains numerous provisions that will negatively impact the informal trade, so our voice needs to be heard.

When the government promises ‘consultation’ and calls for submissions from the public, think about the practical reality of how informal traders make a submission. We don’t sit at a desk all day, writing emails with access to wi-fi. In order to make a submission, traders will need to meet with their organisations, probably after hours, then access a computer and develop a submission, which then needs to be agreed to by members, and then they have to find an internet connection in order to send it to Parliament.

Most traders often don’t even have money for data to send messages to members. In fact, the vast majority of traders don’t even know about the Bill yet, let alone understand the impact that it has on their livelihoods and ability to trade. We are trying very hard to spread the word as widely as possible.

More concerning is that I am not even sure if the Department of Health understands what its Bill means or the impact it is going to have on the millions of informal traders, hawkers, spaza shop owners and home-based operators across the country.

Cigarettes are one of the most highly traded products for the informal sector of the retail market. They form a large percentage of many traders’ incomes, and play a vital role when customers who stop for cigarettes then purchase a range of other products. The majority of these cigarettes are sold as single cigarettes, known as ‘draws’ or ‘sticks’, and are not sold in a pack. This is because our customers cannot afford to buy a full box of twenty cigarettes, nor do they want to - many simply want one or two cigarettes for the day.

The Department’s new Tobacco Bill will ban the sale of these single draws, and this will have an immediate and devastating impact on the ability of informal traders to make a living, put their children through school, and put food on the table. Taking this away is taking away their livelihoods.

The provision, which bans the sale of single sticks, is to be found in Clause 4, subsection 3(c) of the Bill, relating to standardised packaging and labelling of tobacco products, where it clearly says that “no person shall sell a tobacco product, unless it is in an intact package containing the prescribed quantity or weight of the tobacco product”.

You don’t need to be a lawyer to understand that this obviously means that single cigarettes are banned, because you have to open a cigarette packet to access a single cigarette for sale.

Astoundingly, this week, I heard the Department interviewed on radio, where they denied that the Bill bans single sticks. It’s clear that they have not read their own Bill. In fact, it made me question whether the Department actually wrote the Bill or whether it was written by the World Health Organization, and then parachuted into our Parliament. This is deeply concerning for many reasons, because it means legislation is being developed for South Africa without a real understanding of the needs, circumstances and struggle of the people of this country.

Even if the department doesn’t believe the Bill already bans singles, the Department of Health also stated in the same radio interview this week that it does intend to ban the sale of singles, but it will be done through the minister publishing regulations, when the Bill has been passed into law.

So what’s the difference, banning singles under the current Bill or under the regulations, which we have not yet seen? Will we even be consulted about these regulations? Will they be published for public comment? The bottom line is that the sale of singles will be banned, shutting off a legal source of income for the informal market.

While the ban on the sale of singles will be devastating, the Bill contains another provision - a display ban, which will also have a negative impact on the informal trade.

The Bill will ban the display of all tobacco products. Think about what this means to the informal trade. How will our customers know what we are selling if we can’t display our stock? Unlike the formal trade, we don’t have storage facilities or cupboards to keep stock. Banning us and our members from showing what we sell doesn’t make sense in our trading environment.

These profoundly unrealistic and senseless provisions come with ten-year prison sentences or a fine if traders do not comply. The current prison sentence for aggravated assault is three years, but government wants to send informal traders to prison for ten years for selling a legal product.

If it comes into law tomorrow, it means every hawker or trader is immediately on the wrong side of the law, which is startling because informal traders, most of whom are women, are already some of the most marginalised in our society. For many, their little table on a pavement is all they have to live off, as these women struggle daily to feed their families. Does our government not have more important things to do than criminalising millions of honest, hard-working informal traders?

In closing, I caution the department to carefully read their own legislation and interrogate the meaning and impact of their Bill. It is clear it needs a lot of work. In fact, it’s probably best to throw this Bill out. There’s nothing wrong with the current tobacco control laws. They need to be enforced.

While we don’t have access to fancy lawyers to challenge the government, we can make our voices, and unhappiness heard, publicly and in Parliament, when we make our oral submissions, as well as on the streets, and of course, in our votes.

The decision to ban singles and the display of tobacco products shows that this Government is simply copying laws developed in Europe without any consideration for how this country operates and the needs and suffering of our communities. The informal trade is the lifeblood of the economy, and government should be doing everything it can to support it, not cut off access to one of its most important sources of income.

Rosheda Muller is President of the National Informal Traders Alliance of South Africa (NITASA).