The impact of tobacco products on public health is one of the challenges governments around the world have to contend with. SA is no exception in this regard.
Our public health challenges have been made complex by the scourge of communicable diseases that have exploded over the past years placing a burden on the country’s healthcare system.
On the tobacco-control front, however, SA has performed well in introducing a raft of legislative and regulatory instruments as part of controlling the use of tobacco products, from marketing to sales. In part, these regulatory tools were also introduced with the purpose of making tobacco products difficult to reach, especially for young people.
But then these instruments have also had the intended consequence of creating an illegal market that operates below the radar and thus makes it difficult for authorities to regulate. This has led to the growth of the illicit operators who continue to rob our national treasury of much-needed income.
Just this past month, Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba painted a rather depressing picture of our economic situation, which includes huge revenue holes that need plugging by our tax authorities. The picture is dire and it requires creative thinking by all of us if we are to turn the situation around and get our country back onto a decent economic footing.
Despite all the ills associated with tobacco products there is no denying the fact that the industry is one of the contributors to our national revenue. The industry is responsible for employing thousands of people throughout the value chain, earning families some income. Provinces such as Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the North West have a number of tobacco farmers who are operating in this space, providing employment to scores of people, albeit on a seasonal basis.
It is worth noting that some of these farmers are emerging black farmers who are becoming significant players in this sector. The tobacco manufacturing factory based in Heidelburg (south-east of Joburg) is one of the largest in the world, producing for local and foreign markets. As I understand it, this factory is the biggest provider of jobs to people of this small town, which forms part of Lesedi municipality. With matters being the way they are at the moment, there is a real danger that any further shrinking of the industry will have dire consequences on these communities.
But then what do we do as a country faced with such prospects? It is time we take stock of the various pieces of legislation introduced over the past years and assess how these have delivered on their intended purpose. With the best of intentions in mind, legislative instruments always have the inherent shortcoming of undesired consequences.
This is what our public policy makers in the public health space need to look at. There is evidence in every corner of our streets, in big and small towns: tobacco products are being sold freely and way-below the market price and so making them easily accessible to young people. This needs attending to, urgently. Allowing the formal tobacco industry (which is already playing by the rules) will have far-reaching consequences for our economy. With the economic picture being what it is at the moment, my sense is that we have to hang on to every job we can. Our revenue authorities can do with every single rand that can be collected to plug the hole that our Finance Minister referred to in his medium-term-budget policy statement last month.
• Hadebe is an independent communication and public policy adviser