The great cigarette ban debate
So it was with relief that smokers - and those supporting their right to smoke - welcomed the announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa during an address to the nation ahead of moving from level 5 to level 4 restrictions that the ban was to be lifted.
But that was not to be, as Corporative Governance minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma announced shortly afterwards that the decision had been rescinded.
This means that for the past seven weeks, cigarettes have not been sold legally, leading to a massive increase in the illegal trade, with boxes of 20 selling in places for more than R100 and cartons for more than R1000.
Read more: Blown away by the ban on cigarette sales
A survey by the HSRC found cigarettes (11.8%) were more accessible than alcohol (2.5%) during lockdown, while an armed robbery at Makro Centurion showed criminals will also go to any lengths to get cigarettes to sell.
Smoking is a known risk-factor for respiratory infections, and there is an increased risk of more serious symptoms and death among Covid-19 patients who have underlying conditions, including cardiovascular diseases.
However, the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association described the ban on cigarette sales during level 4 lockdown as “irrelevant and illegal”. In a court application challenging it, it asked to see minutes of the National Command Council which voted against lifting the ban as planned.
Activists have argued for the lifting of the ban for economic reasons, saying millions of rand is being lost in tax and going instead to the illegal cigarette trade.
“Government needs every cent of revenue to fight this pandemic, save lives and rebuild our nation once the worst has passed,” said one.
The ongoing ban means tax revenue from the sale of cigarettes - estimated to amount to R100 billion a year before lockdown - is lost.
Another concern is the illicit sale of cigarettes. “We cannot claim as a country that we are on top of it. At a time like this when the legal sale is not permitted, it encourages the trade of these products in the illicit economy,” Sars Commissioner Edward Kieswetter said.