Parliament’s portfolio committee on health is visiting parts of the Western Cape this weekend to conduct public hearings on new legislation that it is planning to introduce.
Unfortunately for people in those areas, it’s not legislation that will stop crime, deal with homelessness, create jobs or address poverty. Nor, even though the MPs are members of the health committee, will they be discussing legislation to build clinics, provide primary health care, recruit more doctors or ensure that there are more ambulances for emergencies.
No, this group of MPs will be talking about ... smoking.
To be specific, they’ll be conducting public hearings in Ceres and Paarl over the weekend on the proposed Tobacco Control Bill (TCB).
As a member of the board of South Africa’s tobacco industry body, I have attended similar public hearings in six other provinces in recent months. So I speak from experience when I say it’s already clear that a large number of South Africans believe that new tobacco legislation is definitely not the most important thing the portfolio committee should be focused on right now.
They also made it very clear that the new legislation is the wrong thing, at the wrong time. If passed in its current form, its major outcomes will be the criminalisation of smoking, the growth of illicit criminal networks –cigarette smugglers – and the death of the legal industry.
The reality is that our country already has tobacco control legislation which is adequate, but not enforced in the least. We don’t need new legislation. Anybody who is a smoker, or who knows a smoker, is aware of the current controls on how and where tobacco products can be sold and consumed.
Government – and Parliament –have not done nearly enough work to help the public understand what is proposed in the new legislation, so let me help them – and help you, because the implications are massive.
If the new legislation is passed in its current form:
◆ You can be arrested and go to jail for six months if you smoke in the wrong place – like a car park or an open space.
◆ You can be arrested and go to jail for three months if you smoke in your own home when a non-smoker is around.
◆ You can be arrested and go to jail for six months if you smoke in your own car with a non-smoker present.
That’s right: smoking is being made a criminal offence. What that means, among other things, is that the police will be diverted from dealing with real crime like murder, rape, gender-based violence and hijackings – to catch people smoking. They will have to hunt down people having a quiet smoke in their homes, or in their cars, or in the car park of a shopping centre – and lock them up.
The police will also have to spend their time chasing retailers who may be breaking the law. And the majority of these are the informal traders eking out a living by selling loose draws (single cigarettes) in spaza shops and from table tops at street corners, taxi ranks and other places.
Under the new law, they will be expected to keep their tobacco products in locked cabinets, away from public view. Quite where they are supposed to get the money for this remains to be seen – but if they don’t, they can go to jail for up to 10 years.
The new legislation will also apply to hookah pipes. This means the people who use hookahs recreationally – in many cases, because they don’t want to smoke conventional tobacco products – will also be restricted, hunted down and sent to jail.
One of the main reasons for this is the fact that more than 65% of cigarettes currently on sale are illicit – in other words, they are made by illicit operators who don’t pay taxes.
The new legislation – which prescribes plain packaging and a blackout on point-of-sale branding – will make it even easier for criminals to manufacture, import and sell illegal products, and to continue to avoid paying tax.
* Motsumi is a board member of the South Africa Tobacco Transformation Alliance (Satta)