Four minutes and 28 seconds. That is how long it took a News24 investigation to find cigarettes – meant to be banned under Level 4 lockdown regulations – which were available for purchase at one of many places in South Africa.
With Level 4 lockdown in place and the sale of cigarettes prohibited, smokers have not had to search long and hard for a fix, as supply has been made available on the black market, it appears.
Recent research by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), conducted in April, said "a quarter of people in informal settlements were able to buy cigarettes".
This was double the number in formal areas.
Across South Africa in general, cigarettes were four times easier to access than alcohol – the sale of which is also banned, the data showed.
"One in five people in South Africa currently smoke, and approximately one in ten smokers were able to access cigarettes during lockdown. The continued access to cigarettes in informal settlements could imply informal trade," the HSRC said.
News24 hit the streets of two of the country’s major metros, Cape Town and Pretoria, to find out just how easily available tobacco products were during the lockdown. We also spoke to smokers who had found access spots.
Loosies, boxes and cartons
In Cape Town, it took only four minutes and 28 seconds to find the first pack of cigarettes for sale. Another three minutes to find a second box. And, in under an hour, News24 had found a full carton to buy - 10 packs of 20. The brands: Stix, Derby and Sharp.
In Pretoria, it took only 15 minutes for News24 to find its first dealer, after approaching a man in Mamelodi who signalled that he had cigarettes by placing two fingers on his lips, gesturing taking a drag of a cigarette.
The man offered up five packs of Camel filter and two packs of Dunhill Courtleigh blend, for R60 each, and said he could get other cigarettes. These were the only conventional brands of cigarettes that News24 managed to find in Pretoria.
In Pretoria, News24 drove through the CBD where loose draws were freely available at R5 per cigarette. In Pretoria West, a dealer was selling a brand called Sharp for R70 a packet.
In the upmarket suburbs in Pretoria East, News24 found a local café that was out of cigarettes, but still willing to sell cigars and snuff (a smokeless tobacco product) at retail price.
Another local grocery store admitted to selling cigarettes during the lockdown, but said they had since run out. The cashier informed News24 that they would be getting stock of Sharp later this week.
A parking guard at a shopping complex was selling a brand called Remington Gold for R70 a pack, while a security guard at an estate was selling Sharp and Pall Mall at R65 per pack.
In Cape Town, News24 sought to buy cigarettes at petrol stations – those franchised with the major petrol retail chains.
Under the counter
At more than half-a-dozen sites, staff said cigarettes were either unavailable, or "banned". Cigarette stock shelves appeared empty – in the cashiers’ booths above or behind staff on duty. In several places, notices had been placed advising customers of cigarettes’ non-availability.
At major supermarket and retail chains, cigarettes were also not available. There were no exceptions to this.
But, third, at non-franchise supermarkets, or smaller trading stores, cigarettes were widely available. These were typically not at major retail centres, but in smaller retail blocks, in communities.
In none of these stores were cigarettes openly available.
But for shoppers willing to ask, staff behind the tills then paused, assessed the people within sight or earshot, and then asked for a preference in brands. These usually numbered just two or three. Some shops offered just one brand.
Boxes of cigarettes were then taken from under-the-counter – literally. The cost-per-box ranged from R30 to R45.
In one store, the staff member asked: "Would you like a box or a carton?"
The price was quoted at R400 for a carton of 10 boxes of 20 cigarettes. The carton was fetched from a storeroom at the back of the shop – and wrapped in newspaper, and placed in a packet, to hide the contents.
The store would only accept cash, however – and refused to collect any payment by card.
Fourth, cigarettes were occasionally found in tiny, makeshift stores - typically selling a narrow range of products.
Multiple smokers in the Pretoria area, who did not stock up on cigarettes before the lockdown started on 27 March, told News24 that during the first two weeks of the lockdown, many reputable grocery stores were still selling their leftover stock.
After the conventional brands ran out, these shops stopped selling. However, some stores managed to get their hands on unconventional cigarettes, including brands such as Sharp and RG.
One smoker said he was able to buy Stuyvesant Blue for a while, but when it ran out, he started buying Sharp and RG from car guards, security guards and petrol pump attendants in his area.
Two other smokers managed to find people who were distributing cigarettes by the carton, and also running bootlegging where alcohol could be bought for a premium price.
According to these smokers, they are sent a list of available stock, where cartons for conventional cigarettes cost anywhere between R1 000 and R1 500 for a carton, sometimes three times the price of what a carton normally goes for.
The same contacts have also been selling cartons of Sharp for between R500-R800 a carton.
Other smokers told News24 that they had contacts at clubs and bars who have been selling their remaining stock.
R1.7bn lost in tax revenue
During a briefing on the impact of Covid-19 on revenue collection this week, SA Revenue Service (SARS) commissioner Edward Kieswetter said that excise duties were down, and that an estimated R1.7bn had been lost on tax revenue from cigarettes and alcohol since the lockdown started.
Kieswetter said SARS was concerned about the loss of revenue on these sin taxes, but was more concerned about fuelling the illicit sale of cigarettes and alcohol.
"The illicit trade and criminal economic activity is a scourge, which undermines not only our revenue collection, but which distorts our local economy and robs South Africans of honest, hard employment opportunities," Kieswetter said.
"We cannot allow criminals to continue to thrive in our economy and, sadly, when we have the misfortune of Covid-19, criminals use this as an opportunity to practise their trade."
The HSRC’s research meanwhile "highlights the need for tobacco control interventions to prevent illicit trade and smuggling".
"The results also call for better regulation of tobacco sales in informal markets."
The HSRC recommended that a health promotion strategy was required, comprising "health behaviour change, health literacy, information and policy".
'No products manufactured during lockdown'
British American Tobacco (BAT) owns conventional brands such as Camel, Dunhill, Stuyvesant Blue and Pall Mall.
The head of external affairs at British American Tobacco Southern Africa (BATSA), Johnny Moloto, said: "No tobacco products were manufactured and sold by BATSA under the Level 5 lockdown.
"Our factory and supply chain was closed and secured. We have no direct evidence of genuine BAT products being sold illegally during the lockdown. We have not supplied any products to the South African market since the lockdown began."
Carnilinx - owned by controversial businessman Adriano Mazzotti - owns unconventional brands such as Shasha and Derby.
The company replied too that it was under strict lockdown.
On the availability of its brands, the company said: "Carnilinx may have stock by distributors and retailers who may choose to break the law and sell or distribute cigarettes. It is not our business to police what they do with products that was sold and delivered to them before the lockdown."
But the company warned: "Our biggest concern in relation to this is counterfeits produced in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho that are coming into South Africa through the corrupt and porous borders. We have given information to the authorities but they have failed to act."
The company lashed out at the tobacco ban, saying "11 million smokers have been turned into criminals".
"Not recognising cigarettes as an essential item is nonsensical, as it is a basic requirement for smokers to live comfortably - just like carbonated drinks, crisps, biscuits, chocolates, hair care products, etc, etc.
"As a South African company, we have abided by all the laws [under duress] - we have had SARS and SAPS visit our premises day and night to ensure and enforce compliance and we have never been found wanting. "
Earlier this week, Mazzotti denied "outrageous claims" that he somehow influenced Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and government to reinforce a ban on tobacco sales.
He said his involvement in an urgent court challenge to the government's cigarette ban makes it "obvious" that claims he is involved in the illicit trade of tobacco are "blatantly untrue", News24 reported.
Asked to comment, Philip Morris South Africa (PMSA) emailed News24, saying: "PMSA has and continues to comply fully with applicable laws, including lockdown regulations, and supports the government's fight against Covid-19.
"We regretfully learnt from media reports that the illicit trade in tobacco products is significantly increasing despite all efforts of law enforcement authorities.
"Illicit trade in tobacco costs the South African government an estimated R10 billion per annum in lost taxes according to the South African Revenue Service. Only last month, the under-recovery of tobacco excise was around R300 million," the cigarette manufacturer said.
"We at PMSA are committed to combat the illicit trade and provide information to the enforcement authorities who are authorised to combat the illicit trade. Obviously, the tobacco industry has no power to seize or confiscate illicit goods.
"Our main focus at this time is on the health and well-being of our employees, their families and the communities in which we operate," it wrote.
Gold Leaf Tobacco – which owns brands like Sharp and RG – did not respond to request for comment by the time of publication.
*This story has been updated.