Government lays the foundation for illicit tobacco sales to flourish


We are now in level four lockdown and the sale of cigarettes is still not allowed. This surprising about-turn was announced by Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma last week amid claims that the government had received over 2 000 submissions from the public opposing the sale of tobacco products.

Dlamini-Zuma said: “Besides the effects of tobacco on lungs and the way tobacco is shared, it does not allow for social distancing and encourages the spread of the virus.” She added that the government had made the decision based on the health benefits of refraining from smoking during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bongani Mshibe, director corporate affairs, Japan Tobacco International (JTI) responds: “The minister claims to listen to science, but the science is simply not there to support her draconian ideas.”

  • The Norwegian Institute for Public Health has reversed its previous position that smoking is a risk factor for Covid-19. It said: “We have removed smoking from the list because this in itself does not stand out as a risk factor for serious progress of Covid-19 in available data from the outbreak.”
  • Despite their strong public statements, the World Health Organisation has said that: “Given that Covid-19 is a newly identified disease, the link between tobacco use and the disease needs further documentation and research.”
  • In mid-April the US Food and Drug Administration reversed its stance on vaping. It said: “E-cigarette use can expose the lungs to toxic chemicals, but whether those exposures increase the risk of Covid-19 is not known.”

Smoking carries well-known risks to health, and smokers choose to smoke for pleasure despite these risks. Prohibiting the sale of legal tobacco (and/or vaping) products because they increase risk of spreading or contracting Covid-19 is not based on scientific evidence. On the contrary, it is being endorsed by tobacco control activists who are trying to use the pandemic as an excuse to pursue their attacks on smokers.

JTI is willing to support any education or awareness campaign at no cost to government on educating smokers on product usage under Covid-19. (Shutterstock)
JTI is willing to support any education or awareness campaign at no cost to government on educating smokers on product usage under Covid-19. (Shutterstock)

In the continued ban against legal tobacco under level four alert status — which, significantly, may last for the next six months, including the possibility of reverting to level five — government in effect has become an enabler for the sale of illicit tobacco that they are supposedly trying to police. It has been well documented that illicit tobacco continues to be sold under the lockdown, with the acknowledged subsequent impact of billions of rands in tax revenue losses.

Mshibe adds: “Since many smokers have been looking to the illegal trade for their tobacco products, the impact on government revenues could last far longer than any temporary restrictions, as legal sellers struggle to compete with fast-growing illegal supply chains that will have used this opportunity to establish new channels of distribution and win over new consumers through cigarettes that don’t pay taxes to government.”

Petition with half a million signatures

While the minister maintains that its decision came after 2 000 people petitioned them, “What then of the (currently) almost 500 000 signatures on a petition to lift the ban on tobacco sales, and not a single mention of the pro-tobacco submissions that they have received?”

Mshibe asks: “How does she place a value on one petition but not the other?”

Almost all countries that have implemented social lockdowns to reduce the spread of the virus have permitted the sale of tobacco products, including the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Russia and Italy.

“It is surprising that South Africa has taken a different stance with an ailing economy. South Africa is one of only three countries in the world that has not listed tobacco as a basic good, at the commencement of a lockdown.”

The minister provides no evidence for an unqualified, subjective reasoning for backtracking on the tobacco inclusion announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa himself last week: “Even myself, I’d forgotten about skyf (slang for smoke) that people smoke together… how people put saliva on their zol (rolled cigarette) and then they share… so these things came from the public, showing the dangers of smoking. In the way people smoke, especially the poor, it would really create a very fertile ground for the virus to spread.”

This clearly shows that the government is out of touch with reality and disconnected from its people. It is undermining the intelligence of 11 million South African smokers and the public. Instead of issuing guidelines and awareness on the sharing of cigarettes as a concern, the government has decided to take the cop-out route of a total ban.

As people continue to smoke illegal cigarettes, government’s rational is completely flawed. JTI has submitted in its proposal to government that as a responsible tobacco company, we are willing to support any education or awareness campaign at no cost to government on educating smokers on product usage under Covid-19 to address this main concern.

This ban is an example of the state taking advantage of the lockdown, removing adult choices and freedoms without providing any evidence or scientific rationale.

It is now clear that sound, evidence-based reasoning is not being applied throughout this process. The flip-flop decision making and a total disregard for the legal industry brings to question: who is protecting the illegal industry, and to what end? Who is actually running the country?

Legal tobacco needs to be included for sale and distribution without further delay.

For more information, visit

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Recommended For You