Picture: 123RF/GIN SANDERS
Picture: 123RF/GIN SANDERS

Strong enforcement and securing the tobacco supply chain will solve the illicit trade problem. (“Illegal tobacco trade flourishes due to government interference”, July 4). The government’s role is to protect all of its citizens - smokers, nonsmokers and children.

Tobacco is harmful and addictive. Creating an environment that encourages consumers to make choices that will promote their health or avert harm is necessary. Most smokers start when they are children — in SA this can be as young as nine. These children are robbed of their freedom of choice. They get addicted and many become lifetime smokers. Research shows that the earlier someone starts smoking the greater their nicotine dependence.

The tobacco industry’s previously secret documents reveal how its marketing strategies have targeted children as “replacement smokers”. A key reason for increasing taxes and introducing stringent tobacco control policies is to prevent initiation by children. It is important to also reduce access, de-normalise smoking behaviour, stop the misleading perceptions and narratives peddled by the tobacco industries, and adequately warn consumers.

Indeed, tobacco remains the only legal consumer product that kills when used as intended by the manufacturer. But it also kills many of the 80% of South Africans who do not smoke, who are involuntarily exposed to second-hand smoke. What do we make of their rights?

Each year in SA more than 20,000 people lose their lives to disease caused by smoking, and it costs the country R42bn in tobacco-linked healthcare costs, lost productivity, and premature deaths.

By virtue of human and constitutional rights, including the right to life, access to healthcare, a healthy environment and child rights, the government is obligated to take steps to reduce tobacco use. This includes increasing taxes and adopting strong tobacco control policies.

A negation of this constitutional duty is in itself a violation of human rights. In the Netherlands, the government was sued and compelled to adopt smoke-free laws that complied with the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Tobacco tax increases do work — they remain one of the most effective ways to reduce tobacco use and to stop youngsters from starting. Between 1994 and 2004, big tax increases and the first tobacco control laws were introduced. The data shows that the smoking rate dropped to 24% from 31%.

Even so, the illicit tobacco trade was not a problem in SA until after 2010, a period when the tax increases were marginal. The illicit trade is fuelled by an unsecure supply chain, crime, weak tax administration and weak enforcement.

Illicit trade does undermine public health policy; it is a legitimate problem for SA and it must be stubbed out. But it is important to clarify that the problem is not tax increases or the proposed Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill. 

Upscaling tax administration at the SA Revenue Service is urgently needed, and it has, in fact, earmarked R120m to modernise its customs. Technologies such as unique identification codes on packages will make it possible to track the intended destination and source or manufacturer, and clamp down on illicit trade.

Dr Sharon Nyatsanza

National Council Against Smoking

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