OPINION | Cigarette and alcohol bans are unprecedented and misguided

The cigarette ban has polarised South Africans. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images
The cigarette ban has polarised South Africans. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images

Policies that were intended to make a public health crisis more manageable could end up adding fuel to the fire and be the last straw for the health system to collapse.

While South Africa's alcohol ban has been partially relaxed, smokers and vapers are still being deprived of purchasing both cigarettes and e-liquids.

What was first a temporary health measure in March, during the early days of the lockdown, has now moved well beyond temporary and is actively infringing on South African's freedom to choose.

Luckily, South Africa has not been one of the worst countries hit by Covid-19. That said, the country's public policy response to fully ban the sale of alcohol and nicotine is one of the most heavy-handed in the world.

As a nicotine consumer in the United Kingdom, one of the most impacted countries globally, I was always able to go to my local corner store and purchase new vape cartridges or a pack of cigarettes. In normal times, these products are a nice distraction from a stressful day.

During an unprecedented lockdown, it played an important role in keeping me sane, allowing me to deal with the reality of having my movement limited, something that billions of people experienced for the first time.

In reflecting on my ability to purchase these products during the pandemic, it becomes quite clear that SA President Cyril Ramaphosa's bans were a massive overreach. The ban was justified by the president under the banner of public health, but was based on flawed science.

While Ramaphosa justified the ban to protect the respiratory systems of South Africans, nicotine consumption might actually be beneficial to patients as it might prevent and reduce the likelihood of strong Covid-19 symptoms. Against scientific evidence, he and his health minister stated that smokers would benefit from the ban and announced an extension of the ban.

It looks like this policy had more to do with forcing smokers to quit cold turkey, than having anything to do with Covid-19.  

And, while consumers and retailers in South Africa suffer from this government overreach, organised crime and the black market flourish.

Global networks, such as BBC and CNN, featured stories about booming alcohol and cigarette black market businesses in times of lockdowns, which acted as a real stimulus programme for illegal dealers.

When walking in my local grocery store in London, I see significant efforts from staff to keep the place clean, have as little interaction with clients, and keep physical contact to a minimum. All of this helps to reduce the spread of the virus.

Illegal dealers don't comply with public health recommendations to help stop the spread of the virus because they are already engaging in illegal acts. Banning the sale of these products doesn't mean that South Africans won't be buying them, it just means that they won't be getting them in safe, legal settings. An increase in black market activity puts more citizens at risk for spreading the virus, which is a losing scenario for everyone involved.

The danger from increased demand for illegal cigarettes or bootleg alcohol doesn't end with the spread of the virus. Poor, and often dangerous, product quality could further strain South Africa's public health system. We know from decades of observation that black market products are far riskier for consumers.

While committing these illegal acts, dealers and producers almost always cut corners, which just exacerbates the existing public health concerns that exist for alcohol and nicotine.

Simply put, in trying to stop South Africans from consuming alcohol or nicotine, Ramaphosa has pushed his citizens into the hands of criminal actors, and the dangerous products that they sell.

Policies that were intended to make a public health crisis more manageable could end up adding fuel to the fire and be the last straw for the health system to collapse.

South Africa should end the ban on product sales as soon as possible and follow countries like the UK, Brazil, Canada or Germany and legalise the sale of nicotine products.

Fred Roeder is managing director of the Consumer Choice Center, a consumer advocacy group that has received funding from the tobacco, cannabis, energy, consumer goods and vaping industries.

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