Associations representing owners of taverns in township areas around the country have criticised the newly-released Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill, saying it will jeopardise both their profits and patrons' safety.
The bill was released for submissions and comments in May this year, and the period for public comment on the bill closed on Wednesday.
The bill seeks to ban most public smoking and introduce restrictions such as banning smoking within 10 metres of any doorway, window or walkway.
However, the Gauteng Liquor Forum (GLF), National Tourism Hospitality Association (NTHA), the Eastern Cape Liquor Forum (ECLF), Western Cape Liquor Traders (WCLT) and the Cape Flats Shebeeners Association (CFSA) all say the bill's prohibitive clauses will strangle their businesses.
Under one banner, the associations surveyed 800 tavern and small business owners, employing over 2 000 people in three provinces, to get a sense of how they believed the proposed new laws would affect their businesses.
Health Department spokesperson Popo Maja told Fin24 that just days after the period for public comment had lapsed, there was no way to confirm submissions from the associations.
"It is still early for us to know what the comments from the public are. The bill itself was an exercise that was thought about thoroughly in the view of public health and protecting people from the negative impact of inhaling tobacco," said Maja.
Maja said the department was aware that the industry would try to mislead the public about these bills, but said the department could not choose business profits over the health of ordinary South Africans.
"We are aware that elsewhere, in other countries, where the government has tried to tighten up control on smoking, the industry has cried foul. But no person can be productive when they are sick, and we are being threatened by a tobacco industry that this will lead to job losses.
"The point is life is more important that profits," Maja said.
President of the Gauteng Liquor Forum (GLF) and the National Tourism Hospitality Association (NTHA) Fanny Mokoena said because of the historical architecture of townships, the bill's specifications would effectively ban any public smoking in townships.
"The 10-metre ban is completely impractical. Can you imagine finding such a place in Alexandra or Khayelitsha?
"Even two metres is ridiculous, because you will be right in front of your neighbour's door. In Alex, a smoker will need to walk outside the township to find a legal place to smoke a legal product," said Mokoena.
Mokoena said 85% of township business owners interviewed for the survey opposed the proposed ban on public smoking, and 92% of them said the new laws, if implemented, would effectively criminalise small businesses.
"The new law will, without a doubt, put the lives of our patrons at risk. Our customers could get raped, mugged or even killed walking to find a place where it is legal to smoke.
"Also, there are laws that say you cannot take your drink outside, so a customer will need to leave their drink behind, where it could be spiked with a drug," says Mokoena.
'Current law works just fine'
Eastern Cape Liquor Forum President Winston Hector said the introduction of the bill was akin to asking taverns to pay large amounts to comply with past smoking regulations, only for them to swiftly be deemed unfit to do business.
"Government asked us to invest in enclosing smoking areas, which we did, at great expense.
"Now they are asking us to invest in knocking them down. It is not fair to ask small businesses to pay for this again," Hector said.
"In fact, we don’t understand why the new law is needed at all. The current one works just fine, and both smokers and non-smokers coexist peacefully. They are not fighting with each other, but respect each other’s rights and space, like the adults that they are."
Phumzile Ratladi, tavern owner and Head of Communications at GLF, said the law-abiding taverns that adhered to the bill would lose their customers to those that did not.
Government 'does not consult'
Ratladi told Fin24 that while the associations made a collective submission to the department regarding their opposition to the bill, it was not clear what action would be taken if the bill was passed in its current form.
"We made submissions and we have commented. We have also spoken public[ly].
"GLF is an organisation that consists of different associations - the ones that are recognised by the government and informal ones. We only meet once a month, and that would be when we would discuss what to do if the bill is passed as is," said Ratladi.
Ben Mdebuka, representing taverners from the Western Cape, expressed concern that the government had not consulted their members about the new bill.
"Our survey results show that 88% of those we interviewed feel that government does not consult enough before passing laws, and 89% said they have never been consulted about any legislation affecting their business," said Mdebuka.