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Opinion Piece

Millions going up in smoke as illicit traders take advantage

The cigarette ban is backfiring as the country loses money needed to fight the coronavirus – by Yusuf Abramjee, 09 April 2020

LOCKDOWN was never going to be easy. For it to work, it had 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 was an error of judgement 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 Cyril Ramaphosa and the rest of his coronavirus task team would be advised to consider how it is backfiring.

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 our homes for 21 days unless we need to shop for food.

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 pain of isolation, suffer withdrawal symptoms so bad 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 putting 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.

During the corruption and state capture of the last decade, the illegal 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 – people 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 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 (South African National Zakah Fund) 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 will run to almost R1.5 billion during the 21 days.

The illicit traders will not be paying any money to the SA Revenue Service (Sars).

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 helped meet more urgent needs.

For instance, Police Minister Bheki Cele says the ban on alcohol is necessary 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.

It’s time for the government to admit the error and do the right thing.

This article was published in The Mercury