Picture: 123RF/Rusian Zagidulin
Picture: 123RF/Rusian Zagidulin

The government is under pressure to scrap its proposed new tobacco laws meant to curb smoking, among other goals.

The tobacco industry continues to face a rising number of challenges in SA, including increasing cigarette trafficking and an increasingly uncertain regulatory environment.

Several lobby groups and business organisations have warned that the Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill will hurt the economy and lead to job losses. The bill seeks to, among other measures, control and ban smoking in public areas, limit the display of tobacco products at point of sale, and introduce plain packaging of tobacco products.

The health department says stricter tobacco laws will reduce tobacco use and prevent millions of people dying from tobacco-related illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes. The World Health Organisation has backed stricter tobacco laws in SA saying they are consistent with the country’s obligations under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and bring SA back to the forefront of international tobacco control best practice.

SA already has a number of regulations in place relating to tobacco products — the price of tobacco products have a tax incidence of more than 58%; tobacco products may only be sold to those over 18; advertising is banned for tobacco brands; and the front and back of cigarette packages are required to have clear and visible health warnings.

Illegal cigarettes

According to a survey by independent opinion research company, Victory Research, commissioned by JTI, an international tobacco company, most South Africans agree that the government should prioritise developing and investing in an effective policy to reduce the amount of illegal cigarettes in the country as opposed to introducing plain packaging.

The survey suggests that the general public views the burgeoning growth of illegal cigarette sales in the country as of greater importance to address than the government’s proposed plain packaging for tobacco products.

Victory interviewed 1,114 South African adults (18 years and older) in all main local languages, from November 14-27 2018. The survey was regionally and demographically representative of SA’s population.

According to the survey, at least 88% of South Africans agree that if the government wants to reduce youth smoking, its priority should be enforcing existing regulations. A total of 92% stated that government's priority should be education programmes in the media and in schools. Most South Africans (87%) think the health minister should prioritise enforcing existing rules prohibiting the sale of alcohol and cigarettes to minors more effectively.

In addition, respondents expressed a high level of concern about plain packaging resulting in a number of major negative consequences including increasing illegal cigarette sales and counterfeit cigarettes which will benefit organised crime.

Estimates are that close to 50% of the tobacco market in the country is controlled by illicit players, making it one of the largest in the world and costing the fiscus up to R9bn a year in uncollected tax as production volumes are concealed from the authorities. Globally, the illegal tobacco industry accounts for about 6%-12% of consumption.

“As the sale of illegal tobacco spirals out of control in SA, authorities continue to insist on further restricting the legal industry that complies with current tobacco regulations,” said Bongani Mshibe, JTI’s corporate affairs and communications director for South, East & Central Africa.

“Rather, they should focus their efforts on enforcing the existing and already sufficient regulations, working with the tobacco sector as a whole to combat illegal trade, and concentrate on introducing ‘youth-centred’ tobacco prevention programmes. It seems South Africans agree with this view. The question is whether anyone is listening to them.”

phakathib@businesslive.co.za