JOHANNESBURG – The cigarette war between the government and tobacco manufacturers heated up yesterday with the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) challenging in court the flip flop on the ban on cigarette sales.

Fita said in an urgent application to the North Gauteng High Court that the government needed to show the relationship between tobacco sales and a hike in coronavirus infections.

The association demanded that the court force President Cyril Ramaphosa and Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to explain the government’s U-turn on cigarette sales.

Fita chairperson Sinenhlanhla Mnguni said in his affidavit that both Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma should provide information underpinning the decision to ban the sale of tobacco and cigarettes. Mnguni said there was no factual basis to contend that the prohibition of cigarette sales was related to combating Covid-19.

He called for the court to set aside the decision to ban cigarette and tobacco products, citing that it was a violation of the constitutional rights of the organisation’s members to trade.

“South Africans had a legitimate expectation that the ban on cigarettes would be uplifted. Manufacturers and individual smokers were delighted by the announcement and began planning accordingly. This had the effect that there was no need to make representations regarding the sale and unbanning of cigarettes after all this had been dealt with by the president in his announcement,” said Mnguni.

Ramaphosa announced that the sale of cigarettes would be allowed during Level 4 of the national lockdown. However, in an about-turn Dlamini Zuma said the government decided to maintain the ban for health reasons after receiving more than 2000 complaints from members of the public.

The battle comes after British American Tobacco South Africa (Batsa), a unit of the world’s second-biggest tobacco producer, also demanded that the government amend its lockdown regulations. Batsa threatened to take legal action against the government if it did not revoke its decision to ban tobacco products by 10am yesterday.

Earlier this month, Batsa announced that it had entered into consultations with employees as it sought 300 voluntary redundancies nationally. The company said that the huge trade in illegal cigarettes in South Africa over several years was forcing it to take corrective action. It said close to half of all the cigarettes sold in South Africa were illegal, costing the taxpayers more than R20million every day of the year.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, have welcomed the government’s decision to uphold the ban on tobacco sales, agreeing that tobacco use can worsen the progression of Covid-19.

They said that the prohibition of tobacco sales would reduce consumption and the burden of severe cases of Covid-19 on the health system.

“This decision will also reduce the demand on the health system by reducing the number of severe cases of Covid-19 that it has to treat,” the organisations said.

“Furthermore, the decision will protect non-smokers who are in close contact with smokers during lockdown from the dangers of second-hand smoke, especially women, children and household members with underlying conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, tuberculosis and asthma, which already put them at risk for severe Covid-19.”

Mnguni said smokers took Ramaphosa’s word and prepared for the ban to be lifted.

He said the association wanted cigarettes and tobacco to be declared essential goods.

“If health was truly a factor, why was there not a prohibition on such non-essential and unhealthy goods as junk food, chocolates, fizzy drinks and sweets?” Mnguni asked.


By Dineo Faku