Tobacco ban a 'deal with the devil', undermining transformation - lobby groups

The ongoing tobacco ban is setting back transformation in the business environment and severely impacting black farmers and businesspeople, lobby groups have said.

Government has "done a deal with the devil", in refusing to lift the ban on cigarette sales during Level 3 of the national lockdown, the Black Tobacco Farmers' Association said on Monday, adding that black tobacco farmers had "suffered enough".

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the BTFA – which represents emerging black tobacco farmers across the country – said it was "deeply disappointed" by the ongoing ban.

"In fact, we struggle to find words to explain how disappointed we are. Our farms are dying, and our livelihoods with them. An entire black-owned, transformed sector of the agricultural economy is going to die. And it is entirely the government’s fault," said the association.

In an address on Sunday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that following consultation with various bodies, Cabinet decided the whole country would move to lockdown Level 3 as from 1 June. Limited alcohol sales would be allowed, but the cigarette ban would remain in place due to health risks.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Cape Town stated that the cigarette ban was largely failing to stop smokers from smoking, but that illegal sales were thriving. There was also potential for a lasting illicit market, it warned.

Government, however, has stuck to its guns, saying that smoking poses health risks and that it is necessary to continue the ban as a precaution. It has cited ongoing concerns over both the health risks of smoking itself, and possible risks linked to sharing of cigarettes. 

A study conducted by the Department of Science and Innovation and the Human Sciences Research Council among around 19 000 people, meanwhile, stated that the cigarette ban had been "efficient" and that smokers were largely sticking to the ban. It also found that there were risks of decreased physical distancing associated with smoking and liquor consumption.

Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma previously said that the decision to implement the ban had been based on numerous submissions to government.

'We have suffered enough'

In a strongly-worded statement on Monday, BTFA slammed government's consultation processes.

"As black farmers, working the land of our forefathers, eking out an existence in the face of extreme hardship, we feel that our government – the government we voted for – has turned its back on us by extending the ban on cigarettes," it said.

"It breaks our hearts that every time one of South Africa’s 11-million smokers lights a cigarette under the lockdown, they are smoking illegal tobacco."

The illicit market meant a drop in support for local farmers, the BTFA said.

"As black farmers, we have suffered enough," the statement added.

'It's hell for us'

"Since the lockdown started, it has been the land of milk and honey for the people who make and sell illegal cigarettes – and hell for us."

In a separate statement, the SA Tobacco Transformation Alliance – which is also headed up by BTFA president Ntando Shadrack Sibisi – on Monday demanded an explanation from government for the ongoing ban, adding that in its view, being anti-legal tobacco amounted to being pro-illegal tobacco.

On Sunday, advocacy company Soweto Business Access similarly said the ban was damaging to transformation.

"During this lockdown, whose jobs are being sacrificed? It is mostly those of Black people who are tobacco farmers, employees at tobacco firms, and spaza shop owners," it said, adding that this was "completely wrong".

The SBA called for the ban to be lifted, and added that the township retail sector should be encouraged to work with the tobacco industry, government, and youth groups to further boost economic recovery and combat illicit trade.

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