Picture: DENNIZN/123RF
Picture: DENNIZN/123RF

The Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill is back in the news. It represents the latest attempt by government to stop being a servant of the people and instead become the people’s babysitter, appointed by our supposed parents, the World Health Organisation. Freedom of choice, perhaps the most important public policy principle in the modern era, features nowhere in government’s thought-processes, as is often the case. Do South Africans truly wish to be coddled?

The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in London published its Nanny State Index earlier in May, ranking the levels of lifestyle choice in the countries of the EU. The index explains that nanny state policies reduce quality of life in various ways, including raising prices that hurt the poor the most and push the industry concerned (such as tobacco) into the black market. It also leads to corruption, presumably as black market sellers of affected products bribe state officials to look the other way. Advertising bans limit information and restrict competition and innovation. There are, of course, also economic consequences for the hospitality industry.

Christopher Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the IEA and author of the index, explains how the Covid-19 pandemic represents a serious health crisis to which governments, rightly, had to respond. But in the process the pandemic provided cover for paternalists to further their anti-choice agenda in ways they could not do before.

In SA, for instance, government experimented with a total ban on tobacco sales, despite there being no evidence that smoking led to a greater likelihood of contracting the coronavirus. This ban led to a revenue disaster for government, not to mention retailers and the hospitality industry. Despite this, the draconian tobacco bill has not been canned.

The bill seeks to prohibit all in-restaurant smoking. Since 1999 government has forced restaurants to invest billions of rand in the creation of smoking areas with special ventilation. All that spend will now amount to nothing, as the whimsical state has changed its mind. 

The bill prohibits smoking in private homes if, among other things, the home is used for “domestic employment”. This concept is undefined but could refer to work-from home arrangements or the occasional presence of domestic workers, who risk finding themselves unemployed should the bill be adopted. As the bill is presently worded smoking in your own house would not be allowed at all, even if cleaning services only came one day per week, or you spend only an hour working from home.

Advertising is also targeted — including inside tobacco retailers. This encompasses sponsorships from tobacco companies. The perverse result might be that if a cigarette is developed that is significantly less harmful than tobacco products currently are (by, for instance, eliminating second-hand smoking), that fact may not be advertised or displayed in any way, shape, or form. The nascent tobacco vending machine industry is set to be decimated as the bill includes a total ban, even in adults-only areas, on these machines.

Naturally, plain packaging is also imposed by the bill. No longer will consumers be able to clearly identify their preferred tobacco products, thus competition will be stifled. Smoking will not decrease, but there will be a consolidation and perhaps even monopolisation within the industry, wiping out smaller players. The bill furthermore prohibits online shopping for tobacco products. And these are only some of the authoritarian, anti-choice rules government hopes to adopt.

The Nanny State Index explains that countries with more paternalistic policies do not necessarily enjoy better public health outcomes. Countries with more restrictive tobacco policies do not always have lower smoking rates than those where freedom of choice is respected. In fact, the spread is quite random, strongly implying that the policies have little to no effect. On the other hand, notes Snowdon in the index, “there is a strong relationship between health and wealth”. This means the pursuit of economic growth “would bring much greater benefits to health than coercive efforts to control personal behaviour”.

In SA, this means the government must drop the tobacco bill and allow retailers, restaurants, pubs, and ultimately consumers, to flourish. Prosperity, growth and wealth follow from freedom of choice. None of this is to say smoking is healthy. I have never smoked, but that is irrelevant. Denying freedom of choice is more harmful, particularly in the dour economic circumstances SA  finds itself in today.

The usual claim that intensive state regulation of tobacco is justified because the state has to carry the health bill for smokers whose damaged lungs land them in hospital is dubious. Rather than regimenting personal choices, the state can instead deny public healthcare services to those who, through their own choices, have harmed themselves with tobacco. They must seek private care. This would be a justifiable limitation on the right of access to healthcare in terms of section 36(1) of the constitution. Smokers know smoking is not great for their health, but mere health is not the only relevant priority in a full life.

Well-meaning anti-smokers have no more right to dictate the lifestyle choices of others than do those who prefer chicken to beef, or those who object strongly to the consumption of meat per se. South Africans must be allowed to make choices and to live with the consequences of those choices.

Freedom means people with strong beliefs leave those who do not share those beliefs in peace. If one objects to smoking, do not frequent establishments that allow smoking, and disassociate from smokers, depending on how strongly one feels about it. But one must never enlist the coercive power of the state to impose one’s convictions about lifestyle upon others.

• Van Staden is a member of the executive committee and rule of law board of advisers of the Free Market Foundation

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