Despite lockdown, smokers are still getting their tobacco fix albeit by very expensive means
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Cape Town - A major new study by the University of Cape Town (UCT) shows that almost all smokers have been able to buy cigarettes during the coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdown, and concludes that the ban is backfiring badly and should be lifted as soon as possible, Tax Justice South Africa (TJSA) founder Yusuf Abramjee said on Saturday.
The research unit on the economics of excisable products at UCT found that more than 90 percent of smokers had bought cigarettes despite the government’s prohibition of all tobacco sales, he said in a statement.
Smokers had to pay a substantially higher price for cigarettes and many had to purchase unfamiliar brands, while some had to turn to “drug dealers”, “smugglers”, or “black market traders”, the research report said.
Professor Corné van Walbeek, head of the UCT unit, said its research was often in conflict with the tobacco industry. “While the original intention of the ban was to support public health, the reality right now is that the disadvantages of the ban greatly outweigh the advantages.
“The current sales ban is feeding an illicit market that will be increasingly difficult to eradicate, even when the lockdown and the Covid-19 crisis is over. It was an error to continue with the cigarette sales ban into level four lockdown. The government should lift the ban on cigarette sales as soon as possible,” Van Walbeek said.
Abramjee said the report confirmed TJSA's warnings about the devastating impact of the lockdown ban and reinforced the findings of a survey by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).
The HSRC reported that 60 percent of smokers had been able to buy cigarettes during lockdown and people buying cigarettes illegally were 50 percent more likely than others to have had close contact, within two metres, with more than 10 others outside the home.
“This independent research by UCT is even more damning of the tobacco ban than the government’s own study,” Abramjee said.
“Whatever its declared intentions, the cigarette ban is solely serving to enrich criminals in the illicit trade. It is impoverishing citizens driven to pay exorbitant prices, depriving the state of R35-million a day in lost excise duties, and spreading the virus by encouraging smokers to travel more widely and engage with more people.
“Enough is enough. The government must admit its error and allow South Africa’s 11 million smokers to buy legally produced, tax-paying cigarettes in shops and stores while they purchase their groceries and other essentials,” Abramjee said.
The UCT report, released on Friday, found that in the first few weeks of lockdown, smokers increased cigarette consumption by 10 percent.
The percentage of people purchasing single cigarettes had more than tripled during the lockdown period. “This is a serious problem for public health in South Africa, especially in a post-Covid-19 world,” the report stated.
“Increases in the price of cigarettes are consistent with hyper-inflation. The fact that prices are increasing so rapidly indicates that the cigarette market is in absolute chaos. Smokers are desperate and are willing to pay exorbitant prices to get their fix, even if it is of an unknown source,” Van Walbeek said.
Sam Filby, a collaborator in the online survey of 16 000 people, said: “The overwhelming response was one of anger. Respondents were unable to understand the economic or health rationale for the sales ban.
"While most of the respondents acknowledged that smoking is bad for their health, they felt that the sudden imposition of the sales ban, without any cessation support, caused mental health problems because they were unable to smoke. Many respondents indicated increased anxiety, feeling more depressed, being less focused, and suffering from physical withdrawal symptoms.”