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Jail for selling loose smokes

The deadline for public submissions on the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill end on August 4. File picture: IANS

The deadline for public submissions on the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill end on August 4. File picture: IANS

Published Jul 29, 2023


Durban - People are hungry, but selling food, not cigarettes, should be more important to South Africans’ health.

Anti-tobacco campaign Protect Our Next made the point as the deadline for public submissions on the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill draws near.

Public health policy and development consultant and convener of Protect Our Next Zanele Mthembu said Parliament’s portfolio committee on health should consider the health of the nation before the profits of the industry when considering the submissions.

“Of course people are hungry, poverty levels are high, but selling tobacco products is not a solution,” Mthembu said, adding that many poor families were impacted by members who were addicted to tobacco.

However, the National Informal Traders Alliance of South Africa (Nitasa) said thousands of livelihoods were at risk because the bill prohibited the sale of loose cigarettes.

Nitasa, which represents informal traders, hawkers, spaza shop owners and home-based operators across the country, also called for a 60-day extension for public submissions, saying that they were not granted enough time to formulate a proper response.

Nitasa president Rosheda Muller said the call for submissions was published in newspapers on June 25 and closes on August 4.

“We don’t sit at a desk all day writing emails with access to wi-fi. 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 to send it to Parliament.”

She said the bill in its current form would have a “great and grave” impact on the informal sector, a key part of the economy, as one of the proposals would mean a 10-year jail term for anyone caught selling a loose cigarette.

“The current prison sentence for aggravated assault is three years, but the government wants to send informal traders to prison for 10 years for selling a legal product. This is madness,” she said.

The Tobacco Bill stipulates that: “No person shall manufacture for sale, import, offer for sale or sell a tobacco product unless – (a) it is packaged in the prescribed manner; (b) its appearance is as prescribed; and (c) it is in an intact package containing the prescribed quantity or weight of the tobacco product…”

The bill also prohibits the sale of tobacco products and electronic delivery systems by means of vending machines. Online shoppers will not be able to buy their tobacco and vaping products over the net if the bill in its current form is legislated.

Muller said the informal sector consisted of people who realised there were no jobs in South Africa and decided to do something to resolve their financial problems. Many were single mothers who had no other means of supporting their families, and prohibiting the sale of single cigarettes would make a huge dent in their income.

Describing their difficulties, she said informal sector entrepreneurs woke up at the crack of dawn to eke out a living and often returned home after a long day without making any sales. Taking away their right to sell loose cigarettes would hurt them financially.

“We are not an organisation that promotes smoking, not at all. We understand the health hazards, but it is legal and people have choices. If formal traders can sell it, then why can’t informal traders do so?”

Mthembu said many informal traders as well as taxi drivers and owners had signed up in support of the anti-tobacco lobby after they were educated about the dangers of smoking.

She claimed the pushback from informal traders was one of the tactics used by the tobacco industry to derail the legal process and prevent the bill from being signed into law.

“Selling loose cigarettes makes it easy for young people to access this harmful product. Also a loose cigarette is cheaper to buy than a packet of cigarettes. Who is easily attracted to buying those products? It’s young people.”

The Vapour Products Association also called on those who believed in the positive impact of vaping to make submissions.

“A flood of substantive responses and comments that highlight the importance of our industry and the positive impacts it can bring to former smokers and those seeking harm-reduced alternatives to tobacco will provide an impetus for the committee to review the current form of the bill,” it said.

Deputy Health Minister Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo told the “Independent on Saturday” that the Bill was not in the hands of the health ministry at present.

“The bill moves to Parliament from the department. We processed it and sent it to Parliament for that phase to start. Once it is completed it will go to the president for signing. Right now the public is presenting to the portfolio committee and writing their submissions.”

The Independent on Saturday