JOHANNESBURG - Indications are that the ban on the sale of tobacco products will be extended beyond the coronavirus (Covid-19) level four lockdown and into level one, which means smokers will continue to pay extortionate prices for black market cigarettes for the rest of this year, while government has yet to provide any evidence of a link between smoking and Covid-19, according to the Free Market Foundation (FMF).
"Smokers should be prepared to pay R20 for a single cigarette or R200 a box for many months to come. The pandemic will be with us in some form until next year, so don't expect tobacco sales to be unbanned before 2021," FMF CEO Leon Louw said in a statement.
"As usual with all rushed and ill-conceived regulations, the law of unintended consequences is at play. As at the end of April, Treasury has lost in excess R300 million in excise duty from tobacco products, the illicit trade has been handed the market on a plate and is charging extortionate prices. People have not stopped smoking. Government has turned 11 million smokers into criminals overnight," he said.
The significant results made in combating the illegal cigarette trade had been thrown away. The future looked bleak for the legitimate industry, including all the informal traders and small retailers who relied on tobacco sales to make a living. This would be very difficult to combat in the future. The illegal tobacco trade had cost South Africa more than R40 billion in lost taxes since 2010.
"What is the motivation for the ban on tobacco? Who knows. Where is the evidence that tobacco products increase the spread of Covid-19, or why tobacco products are singled out when other goods are shared, such as food, drinks, or communal toilets? Why aren't they banning sugar since studies of Chinese Covid-19 patients shows that the death rate was three times higher in patients with diabetes?"
Recent research by UCT's research unit on the economics of excisable products had proven that the vast majority of smokers in South Africa continued to purchase cigarettes under the lockdown, and that they had simply switched their buying behaviour from law-abiding, tax compliant shops that employed vast numbers of South Africans to the illegal market, and often travelled long distances to procure illegal product. "So much for the travel ban," he said.
South Africa was one of only three countries in the world to have banned cigarettes during the pandemic (along with Botswana and India).Government had yet to provide evidence to suggest that smoking had any impact on Covid-19.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) had not released evidence or data on how smoking impacted the virus and had not taken a position on whether countries should ban tobacco sales. Even if certain studies attempted to make a connection between smoking and Covid-19, why had other countries not followed their advice and banned tobacco?
"It appears that government has ignored the advice of its own medical advisory committee (MAC). So what is the source of their advice? The public - smokers and non smokers – have a right to know.
"Government is also ignoring the mental health aspects of a sudden withdrawal of nicotine, which are well documented. Nicotine withdrawal has been forced upon millions of smokers with no regard for their mental health.
"This ban is ludicrous, unnecessary, and unprecedented. Government is accountable to the people – the day of reckoning will arrive. Public goodwill and support generated in the first three weeks of lockdown is disappearing fast. They better have a very good story," Louw said.