Continuous training that evolves rapidly to keep up with the well-financed syndicates that drive the illicit cigarette trade is imperative, says the writer. File picture: Christian Hartmann/Reuters
As a mother of two teenage boys, the issue of the proliferation of illegal cigarettes frightens me. My fear is not so much for the cigarettes but what may be the underlying drugs peddling coming at our children under the guise of innocent sales of cigarettes.

That is why it is important that if the government is serious about its fight against drugs syndicates, it must spare no effort in fighting the sale of cheap cigarettes.

South Africa is among the top five countries in the world trading in illicit cigarettes.

For a developing country dealing with a plethora of social ills, this ranking is unacceptable. The onus is on the government to ensure the country ceases to place so highly in this regard.

The government cannot successfully eradicate the prominence of illicit cigarettes without co-ordinated efforts between it, the private sector and community members. However, the government should be at the forefront providing leadership on how to tackle the issue.

A report published by Phillip Morris International last year, highlights the importance of a zero tolerance approach when dealing with illicit tobacco products. South Africa destroys up to 400million illegal cigarettes yearly, with the police efforts accounting for the raid of 1900 warehouses.

This is a clear indication of the gravity of the situation as well as commitment by law agencies to successfully deal with the matter.

The seizing and destruction do not curb the pandemic.

The government has done well to align itself with the Southern African Regional Police Chief Co-operation Organisation as well as spearheading cross-border exercises such as Operation Usalama. This has led to a noticeable decrease in the smuggling of tobacco products but a direct impact on the rise of locally produced illicit tobacco products.

The country produces between 60%-80% of the illicit cigarettes products as syndicates continue to outsmart the law and solicit dubious methods to ensure that this illegal trade continues to flourish. This puts pressure on the government to reassess the methods in place to curb this scourge.

The government should begin focusing its efforts on rooting out factories that manufacture these products illegally. A 2015 SAPS report identifies South Africa as a manufacturing hub and a point of distribution, which are the focal areas that should be curtailed to cripple this illegal business.

It requires the government to plough money into the training of law enforcement agents. Continuous training that evolves rapidly to keep up with the well-financed syndicates that drive the illicit cigarette trade is imperative.

One would be forgiven for asking where the source of these funds will come from in these dire economic times. The answer would be from recovered taxes as well as relations between the government and institutions such as the Tobacco Institute of South Africa as it is in their best interest as well to fight against illicit products.

Training, however, should go hand in hand with collaborated efforts with other agencies such as the National Prosecuting Authority specialized tax unit and the Hawks.

One of the biggest hindrances in the war against illicit cigarettes is the low conviction rate. This is a global problem and the government should enhance synergistic relationships between local law enforcers in order to tighten the screws.

In essence, better training for police officers will allow them to more accurately identify new methods that the syndicates are using to evade the law and make the necessary arrests.

These arrests should be in a manner that does not compromise cases or tamper with evidence. Information pertaining arrests in illicit cigarette products should be shared swiftly with the NPA.

The different agencies can even develop a shared database that will be easily accessible to all relevant parties. This will surely lead to a higher conviction rate.

The NPA already treats illicit products as a priority focus and with the aid of the SAPS should be able to apprehend and convict culprits.

A challenge faced by most governments is that their laws are not implicit when it comes to the possession of “minor” illicit goods. This means that possession of illicit cigarettes for consumption purposes is not legislated and punishable in line with possession of drugs for instance.

In order to reduce demand for such products, possession, even on a small scale should result in a hefty fine or some jail time.

A positive correlation has been drawn between legislating that the possession of illegal goods is illegal (nicotine products included) and a reduction of illicit cigarettes in Switzerland.

South Africa could benefit from benchmarking on similar laws. This could also lead to establishing a hotline that is similar to the president’s Mpimpa Hotline, an intervention that would surely yield positive results in terms of arrests and identifying warehouses in an anonymous fashion that will guarantee the safety of the caller.

The government should also review the Tobacco Act, and include punitive measures for manufacturers, distributors and end users of illicit cigarettes.

The Phillip Morris International report stresses the importance of deterrent legislation in the fight against illicit tobacco products with an emphasis on strict punitive measures on the supply chain side. Our laws are severely lacking in this regard.

Community awareness campaigns are key to eradicating illicit cigarettes from society.

The government through its Department of Health should play an active role in order to make sure cigarette products on the market are those that have been SA Bureau of Standards.

They can do this with assistance from Sars as it is their mandated to collect tax from businesses and persecute those who operate without honouring their tax obligations.

In South Africa, 44 000 deaths a year are attributed to smoking-related illnesses.

This figure coupled with the fact that the illegally produced cigarettes account for a quarter of the market share undermines the government’s efforts to limit or reduce the use of tobacco products.

This staggeringly high figure does not however discern between deaths that are a result of legitimate cigarettes and those who are not.

It is therefore imperative to continue to dissuade the public from buying these products that often come in packages with no health warning or even incorrect health warnings.

In order to cushion the economy from a loss of tax revenue that results from the trade in illicit goods the government should work closely with law enforcement agencies in communities.

* Keswa is a businesswoman. She writes in her personal capacity. 

Follow her on twitter @lebokeswa

The Sunday Independent