Tobacco big guns on fire over cigarette ban
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Big players in the tobacco industry have threatened legal action after the government’s about turn on lifting the ban on the sale of cigarettes for Level 4 of the national lockdown, which started yesterday.
Retailers had placed thousands of orders for cigarette and vaping products ahead of the anticipated lifting of the ban on tobacco products.
Smokers across the country fumed, with an online petition garnering close to half a million signatures by yesterday.
Twitter lit up on Wednesday night after Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s announcement of the continued ban of cigarettes and related products.
President Cyril Ramaphosa had days earlier announced that the cigarette ban would be lifted on May 1 for Level 4 of lockdown.
Tobacco giant British American Tobacco South Africa (Batsa) issued a statement on Thursday, saying “it is seeking urgent clarity on the decision-making process that led to the government imposing an indefinite ban on the legal sale of tobacco products”.
Dlamini Zuma’s reason for the U-turn was that 2000 submissions had been received in favour of keeping the ban.
Batsa said: “The Minister cited 2000 individual submissions received as reason for this action.
“This was, in itself, bizarre and highly irregular, principally because she did not give the tobacco industry, retailers, tobacco consumers and others supporting the lifting of the ban, the opportunity to comment on the proposed re-instatement of the ban.
“This was grossly unfair and unlawful”, read the statement, adding that the online petition of more than 400000 in favour of lifting the ban “dwarfed” the 2000 individual submissions.
Batsa asked Dlamini Zuma to confirm that the regulation would be amended by Monday at 10am, failing which they would “bring an urgent application to court”.
Also yesterday, The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) said it was confident of overturning the ban, having decided to proceed with legal action after government’s backtrack.
“We had a meeting with our legal team and the decision was unanimous and we will be proceeding with the legal steps as far as the decision that was made by the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs,” said chairperson Sinenhlanhla Mnguni.
“We are convinced with the papers we have prepared, and the case will be compelling one.
“The president’s decision must have been founded and he must have been mandated to make that announcement.
“We want to establish why the sudden U-turn now.”
He said Fita had suggested a staged approach to bringing cigarettes back to the market, with sales only being permitted at retailers which were already selling essential items.
Shadrack Sibisi, chairperson of the SA Tobacco Transformation Alliance (Satta), which represents black emerging tobacco farmers, said yesterday the continued ban would impact more than 8000 workers and 30000 dependants.
“Our losses are huge, from the March 27 until today, we have sold nothing. We harvested in early January and were ready to go, but then lockdown happened. We have been sitting with boxes ready and now with the recent rains, we are going to have to re-dry and re-package. The tobacco still needs to be processed.
“The tobacco industry contributes R36million a day in taxes and now 100% of tobacco sales will go to illicit dealers, they are running amok. We ask who is benefiting out of this?”
He said Dlamini Zuma’s reasoning that smokers would share cigarettes was flawed. “We have been told about social distancing and washing our hands. Why does she think people will continue to share cigarettes, it’s a real insult to their dignity.”
George Devenish, emeritus professor in public law at University of KwaZulu-Natal, said there did not appear to be proper oversight when it came to making lockdown rules.
“Some of the changes and rules are arbitrary and don’t appear to be guided by principles. For example, the chopping and changing on the sale of cigarettes is indicative of being arbitrary, as does running or walking between 6am and 9am. Does it make any difference as to the time you exercise, as long as you are adhering to social distancing?
“People who smoke will buy from the black market and regarding the alcohol ban, there have been numerous break-ins of liquor stores across the country. Instead of prohibition, there should be sensible regulation. And, of course, the state is losing excise duties.
“If these decisions taken by government are in fact arbitrary, they can be taken to the courts,” said Devenish.
But there were those in favour of the continued ban.
Professor Pamela Naidoo of the Heart and Stroke Foundation said: “We applaud the government for putting the nation’s health first in the response to Covid-19. Health supersedes commercial interests. While the right of the individual is important, when we are facing a crisis that poses a danger to society, the rights of the collective to health must take precedence.”
Public health policy and development consultant Zanele Mthembu, said: “Our concern is the proven impact tobacco products have on respiratory and cardiovascular health; emerging studies showing that smoking can exacerbate the impact of Covid-19; the dangers of self-contamination through the act of smoking as emphasised by the WHO (World Health Organization)and the increased risk of family exposure to second-hand smoke.”
Mthembuu said the ban on sales was temporary and had been done to strengthen legislation in the country as a long-term public health measure. She called for the passing of the Control of Tobacco and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill, which “will make it easier for South Africans to choose smoke-free lives, regulate e-cigarettes and decrease the impact of second-hand smoke on the majority of the population, who are non-smokers”.The Independent on Saturday