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Covid-19: Lessons from the ban on cigarettes in public places

Dr Pali Lehohla is former statistician-general and the former head of StatsSA. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Dr Pali Lehohla is former statistician-general and the former head of StatsSA. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Published Jan 11, 2021


BEFORE 1995, you would fly on a South African Airways plane and there would be an ashtray at your seat.

Hotel rooms were filled with smoke as were conferences and lecture halls.

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Codesa was conducted in smokefilled halls and the corridors in Parliament had pipes filled with this mixture on a continuous basis.

Since then, South Africa has crafted brilliant policies on smoking with implementation.

Today public spaces are smoke free, including soccer stands where marijuana reigned.

As we face up to Covid-19, it is apt to point out there are lessons for us to go ahead with conviction and better.

But first, let’s discuss the resurgence of Covid-19. We have witnessed recently an unprecedented level of fractious confrontation with law enforcement authorities due to non-compliance with regulations. We witnessed unconcerned partying in the streets and road blockades by revellers who wanted some Christmas cheer.

Given that prominence is accorded the few, we note death visibly decimating people who are prominent.

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And orbituaries confirm that deaths ares on the upward trend. Would the second wave that is accompanied by high rates of mortality be a result of less responsibility towards regulations? Was the relaxation of rules too soon? Was the virus gaining momentum and mutating into a more virulent strain hitherto unknown?

What compliance frame should be put in place to challenge the path we are currently in? In 2000, South Africa stood tall when it received the Anti-Tobacco Award at the 11th World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Chicago.

The recipient was Minister of Health Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who had navigated the law on Tobacco Products Control Amendment Act from her predecessor Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma who promulgated the labelling, advertising and sale of tobacco products passed in 1995.

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The policy development and conversion into law were in the detail that attended to the strategic pillars of the tobacco industry, advertising. Every advert carried the message that tobacco kills, tobacco is addictive, tobacco causes cancer, tobacco damages your lungs in bold and colours at cost to tobacco companies.

Contrast this to “Tokyo the capital of Japan, where women are renowned for their lovely legs, this is where Peter Stuyvesant is – Peter Stuyvesant”.

Tobacoo chiefs protested but were beaten. Even former president Thabo Mbeki had to give up on his signature pipe. In 2002, a cohort of us attended the Executive Leadership Training Programme at a Harvard dinner. We were from government, NGOs and private sector. Some of the private sector guys puffed, but the Health Depaartment director-general Dr Ayanda Ntsaluba, who chiselled the tobacco laws, ploughed into them and they stopped. In 2005, Mbeki invited me for a talk on data and statistics. The pipe was in his hand but not once did he have a puff.

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Tshabalala-Msimang and Dlamini Zuma had mastered the art of policy design, legislative power and implementation. Many in society stopped smoking.

We can take lessons from these. After all, compliance in society is self-policing. It could help revellers and beachgoers against the resurgent Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr Pali Lehohla is former statistician-general and the former head of StatsSA


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