Police minister Bheki Cele. Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN
Police minister Bheki Cele. Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN

Police Minister Bheki Cele says those caught buying or selling cigarettes will be prosecuted and so have a criminal record.

During a parliamentary question and answer session on Tuesday, MPs asked Cele whether it was fair for individuals to receive a criminal record for just buying a cigarette. He said the courts have “confirmed that you cannot buy a cigarette; it is illegal”.

“It is not just the regulations, not just the minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, or minister of police, it’s a full bench of a senior court in the Republic of SA. So, if people [buy or sell cigarettes], that is to commit a crime, so there must be a criminal record. You did it knowing full well that you are not supposed to,” said Cele.

The minister said, however, that discussions with the department of justice are ongoing.

“It is on that score that the department of justice has come to the police to discuss how we look at those [minor infringements], but there are some who have been found working with organised cartels, transporting cigarettes ... those will have to stay with their criminal records, but on petty [offences], the minister of justice is looking at that,” said Cele.

Recently, the deputy minister of justice and correctional services, John Jeffery, told parliament that the government is working on solving the problem of thousands of South Africans now having criminal records, after being fined for jogging or walking their dogs, among other minor lockdown infractions, threatening their future job prospects.

The ban on cigarette sales, meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus, has been one of the most contentious government lockdown regulations. Last week, the high court in Pretoria found that the ban was rational and in line with the government’s stated lockdown objectives to save lives.

Lobby group the Fair Trade and Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) had approached the courts arguing that SA’s status as one of only two countries in the world to impose such a ban undermined its rationality.

Co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has argued that the ban is necessary because of evidence that smokers are more likely to suffer more severe Covid-19 complications, including death. She has said research from China, the US and the UK shows that “people who smoke have problems with the lungs and if they get the infection they are more likely than non-smokers to get a more serious disease and they might need ventilation”.

The tobacco industry has countered this by pointing to other peer-reviewed studies that suggest smokers are less likely to be hospitalised when testing positive for Covid-19 and that nicotine may offer potential protection against the disease.

The illicit trade in cigarettes, particularly local brands, has skyrocketed since the lockdown came into force, with the state set to lose out on tax revenue. Sars commissioner Edward Kieswetter recently told parliament that there was an under-recovery of more than R1.5bn on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes in April.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za