The writer says companies are deliberately hiding the harmful effects of tobacco in their bid to convince the poor it sustains jobs.
The exploitation of poverty and unemployment for reactionary reasons, which is a strategy that is being employed by some in the tobacco industry, is not new. At the height of apartheid repression, when the progressive forces called for economic sanctions against the racist regime, those who wanted the status quo to remain argued that sanctions would increase the rate of unemployment and thus harm the poor more as levels of poverty would rapidly increase.

Of course this was just a tactic to prolong the system of apartheid. The plain truth is that this argument was being made by those who were not honest enough to admit that they supported apartheid and wanted the system to remain because it benefited them.

It is déjà vu. The greedy tobacco industry is at it again. It is again spreading lies in its opposition to the proposed amendments to the legislation that will impose stricter conditions designed to limit the harmful effects of tobacco.

It is in overdrive, making all sorts of arguments with the aim of ensuring that its products continue to have devastating effects on the population.

In the early days of the first tobacco laws introduced by then health minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the tobacco industry threatened that if the law was passed, there would be massive job losses and that soccer teams that received sponsorships from the industry would collapse.

It even approached then president Nelson Mandela, telling him that Dlamini Zuma’s planned legislation would collapse the economy.

None of the threats happened.

According to a recent report in the Business Day, AgriSA, the Food and Allied Workers’ Union and the SA Spaza and Tuckshop Association, the Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Bill would devastate agriculture and township businesses.

Business Day quoted a joint statement issued by these organisations as saying “the bill would put thousands of law-abiding spaza shop owners and hawkers out of business and drive 80% of tobacco sale into the hands of criminals. The bill would end the legal production of cigarettes in SA, leading to an estimated 7000 job losses, and a shutdown of hundreds of farms.”

The argument being made by those opposed to the bill is simply that jobs are more important than lives. This is absurd. Are we planning these township businesses for corpses? We cannot sustain jobs by selling poison to our people. In fact, this argument is only being made to us because we are an African country. They can’t do this in Europe.

The tobacco companies are deliberately exploiting the legitimate issue of unemployment to advance their business interests. They are using the poor to pursue their own greed and using information that is devoid of facts to propagate their agenda.

As government, we are acutely aware that certain legislation, even if well meant, can have a negative socio-economic impact.

For this reason, the government has developed the Social Economic Impact Assessment Study that evaluates the impact of any new legislation. We have subjected the proposed amendments to this study and these amendments were given the green light. Another falsehood that has been created by the tobacco industry is that the government is doing nothing to fight illicit tobacco trade.

While the SA Revenue Service has reportedly floundered with regard to the illicit tobacco trade, there is clear evidence that the government is committed to combating the illicit trade of tobacco.

We are not the only country that has tobacco legislation. And those who tried to stop legislation that regulated tobacco have never succeeded in their court bids in various countries including the US, the UK, Australia and Ireland.

The tobacco companies know that they have no credible facts. That is why they run to the poor and vulnerable. They can easily mislead the poor and make them believe that tobacco sustains jobs, while deliberately hiding its harmful effects.

These multinational tobacco companies would want the poor to believe that it is in the interest of the working class to fight this legislation. They are pushing a narrative in the minds of our people that health and economic growth are mutually exclusive.

No country has been able to grow its economy with a sick population.

You do not need a job when you are dead. Just over 10% of deaths in this country are caused by tobacco-related illnesses. In simple language, 42100 people die every year because of tobacco.

Have these people calculated the impact of these premature deaths on the economy and the social devastation these deaths cause to the families of the victims of tobacco?

There are other costs that are often ignored. Our hospitals are over-burdened by people who contract tobacco-related diseases such as lung cancer. Many of these have to receive medical care from public health facilities.

Because of our tough stance on the regulation of tobacco, our department has been accused of undermining people’s choices in relation to smoking. Of course people are free to choose but there are figures that should shock all of us as a nation. More than 55000 young people aged from 10 to 14 smoke.

From 15 years there are more than 6million people who smoke daily. Nobody can argue that these children have a full appreciation of the health hazard that smoking causes. They need our collective protection before they take up a habit that has fatal consequences.

To show that we are on the right path, of all the conventions of the UN, the tobacco conventions are the most supported.

These companies tried to block the plain packaging of tobacco by approaching the World Trade Organisation, an organisation formed to promote fair trade across the globe, but did not succeed. According to the World Health Organisation, the experience from dozens of countries and independent scientific evidence demonstrate that tobacco control is good for the economy.

Tobacco control leads to improved health, lower absenteeism and lower health care costs to treat tobacco-related diseases.

There is no evidence tobacco control increases illicit trade. Measures to control smuggling are described in the UN Protocol to Eliminate the Illicit Trade in Tobacco, which South Africa has signed, and reinforce that comprehensive, strong, tobacco control regulations do not lead to an increase in illicit trade.

Restaurants and small business actually benefit from tobacco control, including smoke-free laws.

A 2018 study conducted by UCT with 2000 restaurants demonstrated that most supported the changes promoted by the new bill. Additionally, the study showed that nearly half of all the restaurants were already smoke-free and had suffered no negative impact.

We will not be derailed from our intent by groups that represent the interests of the tobacco industry and not the interests of South African workers. No costs will be incurred by restaurant owners when they convert to 100% smoke-free areas

Similarly, small businesses have not suffered undue economic burden from tobacco control measures, although the tobacco industry often uses this argument to oppose control legislation.

It has been demonstrated that over time, funds not spent on tobacco are spent on other goods. The World Health Organisation recognised the threat of job losses as a well-established and unproven tobacco industry strategy to oppose legislation.

The Department of Health is aiming at protecting the young from easy access to cigarettes, which in turn negates addiction to smoking. There is adequate evidence that vaping products are harmful and also promote smoking behaviour

It is important to remember that all the profit made from the tobacco business are in the hands of a very few private interests.

The small number of South African farmers that grow tobacco, approximately 140, will not be negatively affected by this tobacco control bill. Tobacco production in South Africa has been declining over the past decades, by as much as 80%, and over half of the production is for export.

South Africa’s bill is based on facts and we remain committed to promoting social and economic development through its implementation.

Aaron Motsoaledi is the Minister of Health