Pretoria – Tax Justice South Africa has again urged the government to heed growing calls for a review of what it calls “nonsensical” and “draconian” ban on cigarettes that threatens to undermine the lockdown.
Founder Yusuf Abramjee said: “The ill-thought prohibition of cigarettes is impoverishing the nation, enriching criminals and destroying the public’s faith in the lockdown, which is crucial for its success.
“It faces a groundswell of opposition, from the man in the street to business leaders, politicians and even some police.
“They all realise that the state is losing money hand over fist in unpaid taxes while criminals in the illicit trade reap the rewards.
“The ban is doing little to reduce the movement of people. Instead, it achieves quite the opposite: encouraging South Africa’s 11 million smokers to travel further to find cigarettes in the black market, there is daily evidence of increased activity.
“Business leaders, including Business Against Crime South Africa, industry bodies, politicians, respected commentators and an anonymous top cop, have condemned the ban. It has been called ‘nonsensical’ and ‘draconian’ and has led some critics to question the lockdown itself.
“Crime Stoppers International has written to the South African president and ministers, calling for an end to the ban to prevent it further fuelling illicit trade.”
Abramjee said every day of lockdown was costing the Treasury R35million in lost cigarette excise revenues. “If the ban remains in place for 35 days, that loss will total R1.225billion. Before lockdown the illegal cigarette trade was costing the state R8bn a year.”
“We have disturbing evidence that rogue cops are conniving with illegal traders, and it is feared that large caches of illicit cigarettes confiscated by police are finding their way back into the market.
“President Cyril Ramaphosa has rightly earned great respect for his handling of the coronavirus crisis. But this ban is backfiring badly.”
He said Tax Justice South Africa fully supported a lockdown designed to stop the spread of a virus that could devastate the country, but it was a painful process, and everyone had to buy into it. “If the irrational ban on cigarettes is not lifted, we fear that public confidence will be lost and our national sacrifice will be wasted,” said Abramjee.
Smokers such as Roberth Munthali told the Pretoria News that the ban was an attack against smokers as there was no basis. He said he understood the alcohol ban over tobacco.
“All this has done is make people escalate cigarette prices and sell them on the black market illegally, and make the jails full as police arrest the sellers when this could be avoided by lifting bans and allowing sales.”
Munthali said the government could have come up with better measures, so smokers are not made to go cold turkey.
Kamogelo Madia said the ban had not helped, as smokers were still looking for cigarettes online or by word of mouth, so it was futile, and lifting it would put money in the government coffers.
“Ostracising smokers and drinkers during these times will just motivate rebellion to lockdown increases. The need is clear and important, but the measures are just harsh and do not encourage citizens to comply. Why can I not buy a packet of cigarettes with my cereal or bread?” said Madia.
Dr Neil Benowitz, a nicotine researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, added to experts’ reports that smoking was hard to quit. He said: “From a scientific standpoint, nicotine is just as hard, or harder, to quit than heroin, but people don’t recognise that.”
Dr Allan Forbes, another expert on smoking, said: “When nicotine reaches the brain, it triggers dopamine to be released. Smokers feel pleasure and calm, and their withdrawal symptoms lessen.
“When trying to quit, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, depression, anxiety and difficulty concentrating often leads smokers back to cigarettes.”
He said this, if forced, could lead to sickness, and death.
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** If you think you have been exposed to the Covid-19 virus, please call the 24-hour hotline on 0800 029 999 or visit sacoronavirus.co.za
By Liam Ngobeni