The ban on cigarette sales is failing in what it set out to do – and rather than stopping smokers from smoking, it could be setting up an illicit market for survival well beyond the coronavirus outbreak, a new study has found.
The study, by University of Cape Town researchers Corne van Walbeek, Samantha Filby and Kirsten van der Zee, is titled Lighting up the illicit market: Smokers' responses to the cigarette sales ban in South Africa, and is based on a survey among 16 000 respondents.
"Our findings suggest that the ban on cigarettes is failing on what it was supposed to do," the authors write.
"While the original intention of the ban was to support public health, the current disadvantages of the ban may well outweigh the advantages. Smokers are buying cigarettes in large quantities despite the lockdown, and unusual brands are becoming prevalent."
The ban also does not make "economic sense", they argue.
"While one should not exaggerate the revenue potential of excise taxes on tobacco products, since it contributes only 1% of total government revenue, it does not make economic sense to not collect this revenue.
"The current sales ban is feeding an illicit market that will be increasingly difficult to eradicate when the lockdown and the Covid-19 crisis is over. It was an error to continue with the cigarette sales ban into Level 4 lockdown.
"The government should lift the ban on cigarette sales as soon as possible."
- READ | Supply and demand | As the lockdown continues, the price of illicit cigarettes continues to rise
The researchers found that most smokers had continued to smoke under lockdown. According to the survey results, 41% of smokers tried to quit.
Thirty-one percent did, but of these, 12% said they intended to start smoking again as soon as the ban is over.
Ten percent smoked more when lockdown began, though their smoking decreased once the lockdown was extended.
Still buying – just differently
The survey found that 90% of respondents had bought cigarettes during the lockdown.
Most strikingly, the researchers found that buying patterns had changed. Though smokers were overwhelmingly still buying cigarettes, many of them were not able to access their regular brand.
The primary change was in the purchasing environment, they added. Pre-lockdown, formal retailers took the lion's share of cigarette sales, with 56% of respondents choosing to buy their smokes this way.
After lockdown, this had dropped to just three percent.
"Sales outlets that either did not exist, or that were inconsequential before the lockdown, […] became important sources of cigarettes during the lockdown," the researchers said.
Spaza shops scored under lockdown, with the percentage of respondents who had purchased cigarettes increasing from 34% - 44%.
House shops' share jumped from just 4% to 18%, while vendors took a bigger bite at 26%. Newcomers to the cigarette market included family and friends – from whom 30% of respondents had bought – as well as WhatsApp groups (11%) and "essential worker friends" (10%).
But if you thought it was all about who you know – think again. The study found that the most exorbitant price increases were faced by those buying cigarettes through family and friends, WhatsApp groups or online channels.
According to the UCT study, in the space of 13 days, prices rose an average of 4.4% per day, adding up to an overall average price increase of 90% per cigarette during the period.
Rural areas were the hardest hit, with the Free State and the Northern Cape battling the highest price increases.
"The overwhelming sentiment is one of anger," the researchers said. "Respondents do not understand the economic or health rationale for the sales ban."
While there is an acknowledgement of the dangers of smoking, they said, the respondents were struggling with an immediate ban without the benefit of cessation support.
A non-smoker who declined to be named expressed similar concerns to Fin24. "This morning while taking the refuse drum outside there we no less than eight persons going through bins. I asked what they are looking for, as they are not allowed to walk around without face masks.
"I was told they collect all the half-smoked cigarettes to turn all the tobacco into one cigarette," she said.
"I feel for these people, they do not have the money to buy but instead they risk their and others' lives spreading the virus. Does that make sense to anyone? I was also informed that they share one cigarette between up to five persons."
Another ex-smoker who had been using an e-cigarette as a quit aid said not being able to access vaping materials had led her to start smoking again under lockdown.
"I am masters level educated. I am more than aware of what smoking does, which is why I stopped smoking originally.
"I can see no sense in the regulations. I will continue to support the illegal vendors," she said.
The UCT research, however, differs somewhat from earlier research presented by the Department of Science and Innovation and the Human Sciences Research Council.
Conducted among just over 19 000 people, it found that while the majority of its 19 000-odd respondents were largely adhering to the lockdown regulations, around 12% of respondents overall had been able to buy cigarettes, and just under 3% had been able to buy alcohol.
According to that study, the findings suggested the ban had been "efficient".
The authors also echoed Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's now-famous sentiments regarding the effects of smoking on social distancing. According to the study, the percentage of participants who came into close contact with someone outside their home was significantly higher for those who were able to buy cigarettes during lockdown than those who were not.