The illegal cigarette trade is flourishing thanks to the lockdown


Lockdown was never going to be easy and the two-week extension has just made it harder. For it to work, it has to make sense to ordinary South Africans.

But as most of our nation sits obediently at home and watches the news or reads the headlines, many of us see that one thing is not making any sense at all.

Decent, law-abiding citizens have been banned from buying cigarettes in order to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Yet it has become obvious that this prohibition is encouraging movement, encouraging looting, impoverishing people who are paying sky-high prices and impoverishing the country when it needs the money most.

Now even non-smokers are saying enough is enough. No matter how well intentioned it was, this ban is an error of judgment that should be corrected immediately before it does any further damage.

Police Minister Bheki Cele may declare there’s no room for discussion. But he, President Ramaphosa and the rest of his coronavirus task team would be advised to consider how it is backfiring so badly.

We have been told that the lockdown is necessary to limit the movement of people.

If we are not classified as essential workers we are confined to home unless we need to shop for food or seek medical help.

So far, so sensible.

But SA has 11 million smokers – nearly equal to the entire population of Gauteng – many of whom will have voluntarily tried to kick the habit in the past.

I am not a smoker, but I’m aware that the withdrawal symptoms can be extremely painful.

These smokers are visiting the store to buy their milk and bread, but there they are banned from buying cigarettes at the same time.

Some, already frustrated by the pains of isolation, suffer withdrawal symptoms so bad that they are driven to seek their cigarettes elsewhere.

This increases their movement and spreads the virus, thereby defeating the sole objective of the lockdown, and puts many more lives at risk unnecessarily.

There is plenty of evidence this is happening.

Police have reported discoveries of large caches of illicit cigarettes throughout the country; illegal traders are advertising on social media and doing deals in car parks.

During the corruption and state capture of the past decade, illicit trade in cigarettes was allowed to grow on an unprecedented scale.

The criminal syndicates running this trade have established networks and supply chains to keep sales going even during lockdown.

They now have a whole new customer base too, who may never have dreamt of breaking the law before.

The law of supply and demand means these crooks don’t need any special “introductory offers” to entice their new customers.

They are hiking their prices to capitalise on this crisis, and the smokers, already suffering in these tough times, find their meagre means are being stretched even further.

During lockdown, I have been helping to distribute food aid through Operation SA and SANZAF and the hardship I have witnessed has been truly heartbreaking.

The most vulnerable in our society are suffering, and coronavirus and its impact on our sick economy means they can only expect more pain.

Sadly, the financial impact of the cigarette ban will add to their misery.

Every day of the ban, South Africa is losing more than R35 million in excise duties on cigarettes alone.

The total tax loss for cigarettes is double that and, if the rules are not revised, will run to more than R2.3 billion over the 35 days.

The criminal illicit traders will not be paying any money to the SA Revenue Service.

It is money that is desperately needed by our government to fight this crisis and protect the people. It is money that will be lost to the nation forever if more smokers are driven to the illegal market and never return.

A financial hit might be considered necessary if it helps to meet more urgent needs.

For instance, Police Minister Cele says the ban on alcohol is needed to make it easier for his officers to enforce the lockdown.

But the ban on cigarettes achieves quite the opposite: smoking doesn’t increase public disorder, and outlawing cigarettes only makes the police’s job harder.

The ban is endangering millions – non-smokers included – by helping to spread the virus, enrich criminals and impoverish the nation.

As we approach the second stage of the lockdown, it’s time for government to reset the rules and do the right thing.

File Image: Yusuf Abramjee

Abramjee is the founder of Tax Justice South Africa and an anti-crime activist.

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