British American Tobacco SA (BATSA) said on Tuesday it is alarmed by what it regards as a record increase in armed robberies of its products.
In its view, it is stoking organised crime and fuelling the illicit trade in cigarettes.
"Since the lifting of the lockdown sales ban, armed robberies of BATSA cigarettes in transit have soared compared to incidents during the first quarter of 2020," it said in a statement.
It notifies the South African Police Service of all such crimes and is urging increased vigilance "to counter this menace, which is a drain on the South African fiscus as well as BATSA's operating revenues".
In the view of BATSA General Manager Johnny Moloto, the alarming increase in criminals targeting its products should be of major concern to the authorities.
In the first quarter of 2020, armed robbers stole 1 195 BATSA cartons per month (about 239 000 individual cigarettes).
"We, obviously, had no robberies during the tobacco sales ban as we were not transporting products. When the ban was lifted, on a monthly average 2 845 cartons of cigarettes (569 000 individual cigarettes) were stolen during armed attacks on our distribution vehicles. And this, although we have increased security measures," the company states.
In February 2020, the last full month before the lockdown ban, there were four such robberies. In September, the first full month after the ban was lifted, there were 12.
BATSA had reported a year-on-year drop in the incidence of armed robberies in the two years before 2020, which, it says, can be attributed to increased protection measures put in place by the company.
"The lockdown sales ban led to an explosion in the illicit trade and the increased involvement of organised crime syndicates, said Moloto. "The ban also normalised the purchase of illicit cigarettes by South Africa's 11 million smokers."