The sale of cigarettes is banned during the nationwide lockdown. Picture: AP
The sale of cigarettes is banned during the nationwide lockdown. Picture: AP

'Indefinite continuation of booze, cigarettes ban will likely destroy lives'

By Siboniso Mngadi, Nathan Craig, Taschica Pillay and Lethu Nxumalo Time of article published Apr 19, 2020

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Johannesburg - As alcohol and tobacco alliances consider legal action to have the ban on what is considered “sin substances” lifted during the lockdown, experts are divided on whether there is more benefit than economic loss.

The alcohol and tobacco industries suffered another blow on Friday when President Cyril Ramaphosa declined a request by the Gauteng Liquor Forum and its members to sell alcohol during the national state of disaster.

In response to concerns raised by the forum that small businesses in the trade may suffer financial loss, Ramaphosa said they would receive grants to sustain their businesses during this period.

Since the lockdown was extended, some people have tried illegal means to obtain alcohol.

The SA Liquor Brandowners’ Association (Salba) has noted with concern the increase in illicit alcohol production, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.

Sibani Mngadi, spokesperson, said that this week in Durban police responded to at least three incidents relating to the illegal production of illicit alcohol meant for retail to the public using various commercial brands of spirits drinks.

Meanwhile, the tobacco industry hoped its fight against the ban on the sale of cigarettes would take off even though the liquor industry’s attempt to lift prohibition was shot down.

Sinenhlanhla Mnguni, chairperson of the Fair-trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita), said it consulted its legal team and planned to file court papers this week to lift the ban.

“It is not fair that the tobacco black market thrives on the desperation of people while us, the upstanding legitimate industry, withers away. The government is getting none of that revenue back, but with us, the SA Revenue Services collected R13 billion from excise in cigarette sales in the last financial year.

“We estimate that at R1.5billion a month on excise alone with the ban in place. But when you factor in VAT, corporate income tax and other tax types the figure becomes even greater. They are shooting themselves in the foot.”

Mnguni said Fita had been inundated with calls and emails from tobacco vendors, farmers and smokers for action to be taken against the ban.

“Tobacco farmers, farmworkers, factory workers and the many ordinary citizens who rely on the industry for a living have their livelihoods at stake. An indefinite continuation of the ban will in all likelihood destroy lives.”

Mnguni said the restrictions and whether or not there could be another lockdown extension left Fita with little choice but to take the drastic step of legal action.

Provincial police spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala on Friday said an operation near the Hluhluwe Game Reserve was conducted where three bakkies transporting 40 boxes, each containing 500 packets of cigarettes to the street value of R900 000, were intercepted.

“Three suspects were arrested and will appear in court soon charged with possession of illicit cigarettes.”

A petition was started last Saturday by Bev Maclean from Johannesburg calling for the ban to be lifted. So far it has garnered close to 150000 signatures supporting the motion and is aimed directly at Ramaphosa.

But mental health specialists encouraged those who were addicted to capitalise on the ban to escape their habit.

Dr Lize Weich, convenor of the Substance Abuse Special Interest Group of the SA Society of Psychiatrists (Sasop), said there was much to be gained from “alcohol-free” weeks such as fewer calories consumed to compensate for not being able to exercise as before, saving money, and improving general health and immunity.

“The lockdown and threat of infection is a good motivator to improve overall health. Most people would want their lungs, airways and immune system to be functioning optimally amidst the threat of Covid-19 infection, and avoiding or reducing alcohol and tobacco intake can potentially aid in this.”

Professor Renata Schoeman, head of the healthcare leadership at the University of Stellenbosch, suggested there be a contingency plan for those with substance use disorders who could not cope with sudden withdrawal.

“There is a lot of positive response from the ban, we have seen a reduction in violence, abuse and road accidents.

“For those who use the substances for social purposes, it can be manageable and they probably save a lot of money during this period.

“However, we are very worried about those with disorders, they might not cope with the sudden withdrawal and it is very dangerous, it must be monitored,” she said.

Yusuf Abramjee, founder of Tax Justice South Africa, said there had been two different arguments, one on alcohol, on which government made a ruling, and the other on tobacco.

“There has been an outcry across the board from various high profile individuals and organisations for the ban on tobacco to be lifted.

“Business Against Crime also came out in support. The ban on cigarettes is contributing to the illicit trade flourishing. These criminals are cashing in on our fiscus,” said Abramjee, adding that the economy was losing an estimated R35 million a day on excise duties on cigarettes alone.

He said there were about 11 million smokers who were being deprived.

“There is a different argument between alcohol and tobacco. Alcohol does contribute to social ills and abuse, the same argument does not hold true for cigarettes. These people are addicted. It does not contribute to Covid-19.”

Some addicted to the substances took to social media to vent their anger. One said: “Most politicians have cases and bottles of alcohol in their storerooms.

“They speak as if they are not touching any now. Alcohol does not create violence. Alcohol helps people cope, it doesn’t cause depression. We all have our coping mechanisms so don’t judge others.”

Sunday Tribune

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