Professor Francois Steyn and Harriet Klopper
On 15 April, a shopkeeper in Kalbaskraal, Malmesbury, was stabbed to death for refusing to sell cigarettes.
Tobacco is addictive and nicotine withdrawal can cause severe cravings, irritability and anxiety.
Amid the heavy burden of gender-based violence and with men forming the bulk of smokers, women and children may well bear the brunt of mood swings and withdrawal outbursts.
Despite several calls by smokers and the legal tobacco industry, on 29 April, government confirmed its uncompromising stance on the ban.
Strangely, this followed only six days after President Cyril Ramaphosa declared that government planned to lift the tobacco ban as South Africa entered Level 4 of lockdown on Friday.
Unsurprisingly, there was a collective sigh of relief among smokers at the time, only for that to turn to disgust and outrage on social media on Wednesday evening over the authorities’ about-turn.
Despite wide support for the nationwide lockdown, the tobacco ban has pitched South Africa’s estimated seven million smokers firmly against government, shedding light on the social contract between smokers and the state.
South Africa has one of the strictest tobacco laws worldwide and smokers, in general, comply with this legislation. It is not against the law to smoke; however, buying illicit tobacco products is. It is estimated that the illegal tobacco industry contributes to government losses of R7 billion a year. During the lockdown ban on the sale of legal tobacco products, the fiscus is losing about R35 million a day in tax revenue, which amounts to R1.2 billion over the initial five-week ban.
Uncertainty about the length of Level 4 lockdown restrictions makes it impossible to calculate further losses – this income is a permanent loss that can never be recovered. Admittedly, the aforementioned figures amount to fractions of the country’s income, yet every single rand counts in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, considering the fact that the cash-strapped government plans to borrow almost R400 billion from various international lenders to foot the bill of the coronavirus response.
In order to navigate through their subjective stress and anger, smokers are left with very few options. Either ration current stock, quit smoking or source tobacco illegally. The facts are that most smokers have run out of the stock they bought for the initial three-week lockdown and the difficulty of quitting the habit is well documented.
The result is that smokers have turned to the illicit tobacco trade, thus feeding organised crime. Illegal sourcing of tobacco is a form of adaptation to government’s relentless stance on tobacco sales. Presently, smokers who have largely been conformers to tobacco legislation are becoming innovators to source cigarettes.
Strategies vary, from approaching petrol station attendants, homeless people and unsavoury characters in rundown areas to making use of social media platforms and drones to receive deliveries. The solution to the problem is clear: government must lift the ban. If government’s intention with the tobacco ban was to reduce the number of smokers in SA and/or ameliorate the negative consequences when smokers fall prey to the ravages of Covid-19, the aspiration clearly failed.
Smokers continue to source tobacco products because they were pushed into the welcoming arms of the country’s organised crime industry. Both smokers and government are now picking the fruit of a poisoned tree.
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