As soon as it was announced that the ban on the sale of tobacco products was to be extended on Wednesday night, hundreds of thousands of South African smokers took to social media and petition platforms to put a stop to the decision.
Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma confirmed that after receiving opposition from over 2,000 people regarding lifting the prohibition of tobacco sales, and had since the weekend decided to keep the ban.
Dlamini-Zuma said smoking was not just unhealthy, but was concerned about sharing cigarettes, which increases the risk of contracting Covid-19.
Over 300,000 people from across the country have signed a petition on Change.org, with petition creator Bev Maclean saying that smokers were only given one days’ notice, “which is really unfair and spiteful”.
Maclean added that smokers experiencing withdrawal causes depression and anxiety, “and because we are in lockdown, most people will lash out and maybe even hurt loved ones unintentionally”.
Extending the ban of tobacco products has also reignited the legal battle that was to take place by the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita).
Fita confirmed on Wednesday evening that it would be reinstating its legal bid to overturn the ongoing ban.
The court action was suspended after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced last week that tobacco products would be allowed to be sold.
Chairman Sinenhlanhla Mnguni said lifting the ban on cigarettes would save jobs, stimulate the economy and “decrease the psychological impact on South Africans of the lockdown period”.
Earlier this month, Fita warned that government could lose over R1 billion a month if the ban remained in place, and that smuggling cigarettes would mean an increase in transgressors bypassing lockdown regulations, and the potential increase of illegal activities.
They also pointed out that other countries were not banning the sale of cigarettes.
Many jobs would also be lost as a result, with whole retail stores selling tobacco products now facing closure.
DA interim leader John Steenhuisen labelled some of government’s decisions, including the cigarette ban, “draconian”.
His Facebook post summarising his take on Dlamini-Zuma’s decisions garnered much attention, with social media users venting their frustration.
From comical to desperate, smokers who had been looking forward to finally puffing away again made some interesting points.
“My mother didn’t even tell me I can’t smoke, Ramaphosa said we can start buying cigarettes from the 1st of May and now they change their minds. Are they trying to control us people?” one user asked.
“People are lonely and depressed and smoking is keeping them sane this pathetic reason of its dangerous when people make a zol is embarrassing to the whole country,” another comment read, with many questioning whether communism now rules government’s political agenda.
Tax Justice South Africa (TJSA) founder Yusuf Abramjee adding his voice of condemnation after the announcement, saying that the extension is “life-endangering economic sabotage” .
He said the ban was “ill-thought”, and would lure South Africa’s 11 million smokers to the black market.
“Illicit cigarettes are flooding the market at massively inflated prices, delivering no tax to the country and actively increasing the movement of people – the very thing the lockdown is supposed to prevent.”
Abramjee also said that government was aware of this, pointing to a report released earlier this week by the Human Sciences Research Council (JSRC), which found that one in four informal settlement residents still have access to cigarettes despite the ban, and that illegal traders have been profiting handsomely across the country.
Even Twitter users who were not smokers themselves pointed to the potentially negative consequences of the ban, with most users expressing concern that the illegal cigarette trade would thrive.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has however repeatedly emphasised the fact that smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to Covid-19.
“The act of smoking means that fingers (and possibly contaminated cigarettes) are in contact with lips which increases the possibility of transmission from hand to mouth.
“Smokers may already have lung disease or reduced lung capacity, which would greatly increase risk of serious illness,” the WHO said.