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Picture: Andy H/Pixabay
Picture: Andy H/Pixabay

As a smoker — for over two decades now — I’m well aware of the entitlement people like me feel we have to public spaces. I remember a time, just over 20 years ago, when I sat on a small wall outside a public library. 

A woman who also wanted to sit there asked if I could move away, to which I responded with a snarky “But we’re outside and you found me smoking”. Because of my arrogance, the woman had to choose between breathing in second-hand smoke or sitting down in the only available area. 

She walked away. 

Over the years, I’ve become more mindful about where I smoke. But it doesn’t mean others aren’t affected by my habit. And this entitled attitude is not unique to me; it continues to be common among smokers. For example, at the bus stop I use, many people simply light up a cigarette, despite being among a crowd of non-smokers — and see nothing wrong with it. 

Until the early 1990s, smoking in public places in South Africa was commonplace. I recall often seeing taxi drivers puffing away, while the seats behind them were filled with passengers. Cigarette ads were familiar. A teacher at my school not only smoked in the schoolyard, but also at the door of her classroom while learners were inside. 

Why smokers have no right to light up in public buildings 

But I’ve seen that change in my lifetime — and not by accident. This shift was the result of tobacco control legislation

Laws like this work — and should now be made stricter. This is what the proposed new Tobacco Products & Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill is meant to do, especially by outlawing smoking in shared outdoor spaces and anywhere inside buildings and treating e-cigarettes like traditional smokes because they’re undoing much of the progress in getting people off tobacco over the years.

Despite being a smoker, I support this draft legislation because it’s in the best interest of public health. The stricter rules will protect many people, including those who unwillingly have to inhale second-hand smoke. For example, in South Africa just over 11% of adults who work indoors are exposed to tobacco smoke in enclosed areas at their workplace, meaning that people are forced to face harm simply by earning a living. 

The stricter rules will protect many people, including those who unwillingly have to inhale second-hand smoke

‘It’s just a vape’

It’s not only cigarettes that pose a risk to workers, though. 

A few years ago, at a report launch I attended, someone was drawing on an e-cigarette while we were all together inside. When people protested, the smoker replied that “it’s just a vape”. 

But e-cigarettes aren’t harmless. Yet portraying them as such is a successful marketing ploy by manufacturers — many of which are linked to tobacco companies — and is all the more reason that their sale and use should be regulated. 

Also, smoking water pipes — aka hookahs, shishas or hubblies — is on the rise in South Africalike in many parts of the world, and hookah bars are all the rage. (A water pipe [also known as a bong] is almost like an old-school mechanical vape. It looks a bit like a long-stemmed ornamental jug with a flexible hose connected to the spout. Tobacco is placed in a small bowl at the top of the stem and when heated, it forms smoke that is passed through water or another liquid in the jug. The user then sucks the vapour into the hose.) 

While there isn’t enough good data evaluating the health effects of hookah smoke on employees in these bars, a study among a small group in New York City found that they exhaled much higher amounts of dangerous gases and that their immune system had released more inflammation-linked chemicals than normal after a shift. Like vapes, hookah smoking is punted to be safer than puffing on cigarettes, but it’s linked to many of the same negative health effects as smoking and poses risks to those exposed to it. 

How Big Tobacco plays the game 

When South Africa’s changed bill was first announced in 2018, pro-smoking media messages backed by Big Tobacco sold the idea that the proposed bill will harm society and the economy. But the economic cost conveniently left out of the industry’s rhetoric is that in 2016, health-care costs related to tobacco use meant that “for every rand received in the form of cigarette tax, society loses R3.43”. Such messages match the stance that, as a big analysis of studies found, when the tobacco industry is faced with antismoking policy proposals, it produces “an alarmist narrative that proposed policies will fail and lead to a great number of undesirable social and economic consequences”.

Moreover, as part of the opposition to the new tobacco laws, vape manufacturers put forward questionable claims that e-cigarettes can help people to quit tobacco — when instead they actually just help Big Tobacco to continue to profit from a deadly addiction.

Sure, like many other smokers, I’m not looking forward to losing the smoking areas at some of my favourite places to hang out. But my individual choice should not be taken as more important than public health and the wellbeing of society as a whole — especially not in defence of an industry that is known to be deadly and to operate with impunity.

* Koketso Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. In 2024 she was announced as an inaugural New Voices Advanced Advocacy Program fellow. 

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.

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