Despite cigarettes costing almost R300 a pack, SA smokers finding it hard to quit
Recent research has shown that the average price of cigarettes has increased by nearly 250 percent compared to pre-lockdown levels.
Based on a second online survey, conducted between 4 and 19 June 2020, researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT) found that the average price per cigarette was R5.69, or R114 per pack of 20.
Some respondents reported prices as high as R300 per pack of 20 or R3000 per carton of 200 cigarettes. This is significantly higher than the 90 percent increase in cigarette prices observed in an earlier survey in May 2020 by the same research team.
The study, which was based on more than 23 000 respondents, was conducted by the Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products (REEP), an independent research unit based at UCT. The research team consisted of Professor Corné van Walbeek, Sam Filby and Kirsten van der Zee.
Nearly 30 percent of respondents indicated that they had tried to quit during the lockdown. The main reason, as indicated by 56 percent of respondents who tried to quit, was the high prices of cigarettes.
Another 14 percent of respondents indicated that they had tried to quit because they were unable to find cigarettes. Only 11 percent of respondents that tried to quit indicated that they did so because of the sales ban.
There are large demographic disparities amongst those who reported that they had successfully quit smoking cigarettes. Nearly half of African females and more than a third of African males who answered the survey indicated that they had successfully quit smoking.
At the other extreme, fewer than four percent of white male and fewer than two percent of white female respondents indicated that they had successfully quit smoking during the lockdown. More than 70 percent of smokers who quit did so before 2 May 2020, i.e. during level 5 lockdown.
Professor Corné van Walbeek, director of REEP, said: “The intended lockdown benefit of people quitting smoking was mostly realised in lockdown level 5. The percentage of respondents who quit subsequently has decreased to little more than a trickle.”
The average pre-lockdown consumption of quitters was about half of that of continuing smokers, suggesting that quitters were less addicted than continuing smokers.
Of the respondents who continued smoking, 93 percent indicated that they had been able to purchase cigarettes during the lockdown period.
Most respondents had purchased cigarettes through informal channels, such as friends and family (27 percent), spaza shops (25 percent), street vendors (11 percent) and WhatsApp groups (eight percent). Formal retail outlets, which were the predominant source of cigarettes before lockdown (53 percent), have all but disappeared (0.3 percent).
“The tobacco sales ban during the lockdown has thrown the cigarette market into disarray. The market has completely changed. Whereas previously multinationals dominated the market, their share of sales has decreased to less than 20% among the people who were sampled. Most of our respondents have been forced to switch brands, a large proportion of which are produced by local manufacturers,” commented Van Wallbeek.
The average daily number of cigarettes smoked by continuing smokers decreased from 16.4 cigarettes pre-lockdown to 13.1 cigarettes in June 2020. Half of these respondents smoked less during lockdown than before lockdown, 15 percent smoked more, and 35 percent smoked the same amount.
A further 82 percent of respondents indicated that, before lockdown, they never shared an individual cigarette with someone else.
However, during lockdown the percentage of smokers who never shared a cigarette decreased to 74 percent. The number of people who indicated that they regularly shared individual cigarette sticks (more than 50 percent of cigarettes smoked were shared) increased from 1.7 percent to 8.9 percent, an increase of 430 percent.
The authors argue that the intention of the sales ban, in terms of smokers quitting and reducing spreading Covid-19 through cigarette sharing, is undermined by the fact that so many people are still smoking cigarettes and by the increased occurrence of cigarette sharing.
More than a quarter of people who quit during lockdown indicated that they would start smoking again after the sales ban is lifted.
Van Walbeek concluded: “The one lesson that we learn from the sales ban and the associated chaos in the market is that smokers are willing to pay a much higher price than the R25 to R45 per pack that they were paying before the lockdown. National Treasury should substantially increase the excise tax on tobacco products when the sales ban is lifted. Such a strategy will have good public health consequences and will allow the government to claw back the loss of revenue that it suffered during the lockdown.
“The crucial proviso is that it can control the illicit market. That, in the current scenario, will be hard to do, but there are solutions available, such as digital tax stamps and Track and Trace solutions.”