Corona spell: South Africa’s smokers have been withdrawn for months

Katlego Tshiloane (34) smokes with anger – only figuratively. “This ban on tobacco doesn’t make any sense,” complains the South African from Soweto, Johannesburg. He used to smoke between 10 and 20 cigarettes a day – before the corona restrictions imposed at the end of March. There have been various loosenings since then, but the tobacco ban has persisted to the smokers of the country to this day.

The tobacco industry is on the barricades, consumer advocates sense severe interference with personal rights, economists warn of tax losses.

Roobisch cigarettes as an alternative

Many smokers use dubious substitutes such as Rooibosch cigarettes on the black market. “I even tried green tea in my pipe,” admits Philip Newmarch (75). The Cape Town native started smoking at the age of 18 – and was suddenly cut off from all supplies when the supplies ran out. “I smoked the last real cigarette in mid-April,” he says. The responsible minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had justified the ban with the fact that smokers are more at risk for complications from Covid-19 and could put a strain on the health system.

No lifting in sight

A court had ruled in early June that the tobacco ban and similar measures were not rationally linked to limiting Covid-19 infections. But last Friday, another court in Pretoria ruled that the minister was right and dismissed a complaint by independent FITA tobacco producers. Johnny Moloto warned: “The continuing ban on legal tobacco sales threatens the survival of the tobacco sector.” The manager represents the interests of the British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA) tobacco company, with a market share of 78 percent in South Africa’s largest tobacco company.

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He warns of the economic consequences and argues that the industry flushed the tax authorities around 13 billion rand (670.80 million euros) in taxes into the state coffers in 2019. His urgent application to the court to abolish the ban was last surprisingly postponed to early August. Lisa Williams (61) from Pretoria, who has been enjoying tobacco for 20 years, does not believe that it will be lifted soon.

High prices on the black market

“In the beginning, I put on supplies for three weeks, then it was over,” says the yoga teacher. She still has no withdrawal symptoms: like others, she has discovered the black market. There is a lot of strong tobacco of dubious quality to be had, says Johannesburg’s Pocha Ngulube, who buys his cigarettes individually. “It used to cost 3 rands,” he says. With luck, he bought it for 5 rands today.

Tshiloane also confirms that cigarettes are easy to get. But the prices are high. While the stick of branded cigarettes once cost 420 rands (around 21.50 euros), black market traders are now demanding 650 rands (around 33.50 euros). “The prices of branded cigarettes even go up to 1,800 rand (93 euros),” Williams says. The author Max Du Preez therefore complains that the ban has triggered the greatest crime wave in South Africa’s history, based on the number of individual violations. Millions of citizens have broken laws for the first time. “Thousands of jobs are at risk in the economy as crime becomes the new normal,” says manager Moloto.

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Government hopes smokers will drop

The government, on the other hand, believes that the black market partially compensates for the negative economic consequences of the ban on tobacco. She also hopes that a good ten percent of smokers will give up their vice – that would be one million if there are almost ten million smokers in the country.

That was the case with Susan Gordon. Up to the corona restrictions, she was a heavy smoker. “I have smoked for 33 years, but I panicked about the expansion of the lockdown,” explains the 50-year-old from Johannesburg and says: “I knew I would not be able to keep enough cigarettes and had immediately reduced smoking”. When she realized that it was possible without it, she decided to stop with medical support. “But I still think that the spell is just ridiculous,” she criticizes.

The ban also has an effect on some fans of the likewise banned e-cigarettes. After the academic Salim Vally first stocked up on dubious sources with supplies, he gave up three weeks ago. “The spell worked like a catalyst for me,” he admits.

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