MARTIN VAN STADEN: Government fiddles with tobacco as SA burns
Nearly 2,000 years ago, a six-day fire devastated Rome, leaving half the city’s population homeless and destroying 70% of its buildings. As panic set in, rumours spread that the emperor, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, had played the fiddle while he watched the city burn.
In SA today the neglect of our electricity infrastructure has led to unprecedented levels of load-shedding. A cholera outbreak is threatening municipal water supplies in five provinces, and has already claimed more than 40 lives.
Babies born prematurely in one state hospital are placed in cardboard boxes as there are no incubators available — emblematic of the chaos and corruption that prevails throughout our healthcare system. Unemployment continues to rise, with no end in sight. Investor and consumer confidence in the economy is collapsing, in no small part thanks to the government’s foreign policy blunders.
The government is fiddling while big issues burn the country. For instance, our legislators feel now is the right time to introduce new lifestyle regulations such as the Tobacco Products & Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill. Rather than deal with the multitude of real crises that threaten South Africans’ lives and livelihoods, parliament and its health portfolio committee are fine-tuning a law that seeks to ban smoking and vaping in private premises — including our own homes.
Another analogy is that of shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic. But in many ways this is worse. That parliament should choose to focus on such an issue in SA’s current circumstances is like ordering the Titanic’s helmsman to leave his station and go clean the toilets when the iceberg has already been spotted on the horizon.
SA’s public policy agenda should be focused on the big issues that are wrecking our nation, not on nibbling away at consumer choice. As our defence and foreign affairs ministers tank the value of the rand by playing nice with Vladimir Putin, the health minister has resurrected Vladimir Lenin from the dead to write the Tobacco Bill.
The bill as proposed would prohibit owners of any “property accessible to the public” from allowing people to smoke, even in designated areas. Even where the owner is a smoker the mere presence of a non-smoker in any “enclosed space” would mean lighting up would breach the law. Property owners who employ domestic workers would be prohibited from smoking in their own homes should the bill be adopted.
If the goal was to create even more unemployment by causing the domestic helpers of smokers to be “let go”: mission accomplished. And then the bill also bestows on the health minister the absolute and unconstrained discretion to prohibit smoking anywhere and everywhere if they “consider it appropriate” to “reduce or prevent the public’s exposure to smoking”.
Because the government knows the hopelessly stretched SA Police Service would be unable to enforce such a draconian law, it has compulsorily deputised anybody who is “in control of a place or an area” where smoking is prohibited to enforce the law.
Vaping devices, widely considered to be less harmful than tobacco, may no longer be advertised or even “promoted”. In the wide language of the bill, if vape producers even insinuate that someone should buy their product they would fall foul of the law.
Remember those candies we ate as children that resembled small cigarettes? Under the Tobacco Bill selling something like that would be banned. The geniuses at the department of health seem to have finally cracked the reason there are still smokers in SA: they ate candy that resembled tobacco products when they were children, making them addicts for life.
This is but a taste of the 20 pages of nonsense that is the Tobacco Bill, all while SA burns. It is the dream of bureaucrats whose source of joy in life is knowing that they control every aspect of our lives. Freedom of choice? Forget it.
The SA government is afflicted with a common disease known as “busywork”. Politically conscious South Africans — a growing community — are well aware of our government’s inability to fix the country’s real problems. With election season getting into gear, the governing party understands that it must fight against this consciousness by portraying itself as “doing something”. Anything.
As polling done annually by the Institute of Race Relations consistently shows, South Africans care most about unemployment, crime and education. They care least about land reform, inequality and racism. Yet, the latter category of concerns represents the low-hanging fruit of public policy, which is why policies such as the Expropriation Bill, Hate Speech Bill and employment equity regulations are always wheeled out as part of the governing party’s electioneering.
The Tobacco Bill is another instance. Nobody wants to “side with” smokers and vapers. The only ones who nominally resist are Big Tobacco and some vaping associations, so the government feels confident that it can be seen to be “doing something” without any negative political repercussions.
This is especially so when — thanks to the last time the health department geniuses had their way and banned tobacco sales during the Covid pandemic — 70% of all cigarettes consumed are now from the illegal market. Those selling the most harmful tobacco products are already breaking the law and not paying taxes, so they don’t care about new rules or regulations.
As South Africans we must resist the government’s “doing-something” appeal to the high ground and send it an unequivocal message: focus on fixing the serious problems you created in the first place, before creating new ones.
I understand that many readers will indignantly side with the government, saying it is about time it got serious about the harms of smoking. As a non-smoking teetotaller I understand this knee-jerk reaction. But South Africans should not allow themselves to be used by the government as useful idiots.
Our elected representatives have more important — in fact, existential — issues to deal with. We all know this and, secretly, so do they, but fiddling while SA burns is far easier than putting out raging fires.
• Van Staden is a policy fellow at the Consumer Choice Centre and head of policy at the Free Market Foundation.
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