On May 31, declared by the WHO to be “No Tobacco Day”, health minister Zweli Mkhize announced that the government is finalising a bill intended to enforce a 100% prohibition of smoking in public areas. It’s a severe step, coming as it does on the heels of the controversial ban on cigarettes as part of the Covid-19 lockdown.

The current law bans smoking in public places, but it does allow for designated smoking areas in places like bars, taverns and restaurants, provided these areas don’t take up more than 25% of the venue.

Of course, wanting to reduce the prevalence of smoking is commendable. As it is, 117 South Africans die from smoking-related diseases every day, while taxpayers pay R57bn in smoking-related health-care costs every year (an amount that vastly exceeds the taxes collected from the tobacco industry).

A total ban on smoking in public would give minister in the presidency Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma an opportunity to complete a crusade she began more than two decades ago: halt smoking entirely.

SA is a signatory to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which includes a range of measures aimed at reducing public demand for tobacco products. These include everything from introducing tax measures to regulating the contents of tobacco products and their packaging and implementing cessation programmes for smokers.

Critically, it also includes an article dealing with the protection of the public from exposure to tobacco smoke, requiring government to “implement effective measures in indoor workplaces, public transport, indoor public places and, as appropriate, other public places”.

Still, extending the ban on smoking in public places from 25% to 100% is not legally required under SA’s international obligations, and it would constitute the exercising of an administrative discretion on the part of government.

Of course, SA isn’t beholden to the world and is quite at liberty to introduce more stringent measures than those that have been recommended. However (and somewhat interestingly), very few other countries seem to have introduced a blanket ban on smoking in public places. These are most notably countries like Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Against that backdrop, the government’s handling of the tobacco sales ban seems to be a dramatic policy choice – and perhaps even more so given the knock the public’s confidence has taken over the handling of the ban as part of the lockdown regulations.

This becomes even more pertinent when one considers other good practice measures that SA is obliged to implement under the convention that government has simply not introduced.

This failure to implement a number of these measures is simply mind-boggling: reports by the health department itself suggest it has not adopted a comprehensive national tobacco control strategy or national co-ordinating mechanism for tobacco control.

As it stands, health warnings don’t yet make up more than 50% of the packs of cigarettes and pictorial warnings on packs have not been adopted. There are no concerted media campaigns to promote tobacco cessation, and no ban on tobacco sponsorships.

The sale of single sticks – an incredibly important driver of consumption – has not been banned, and neither has the sale of cigarettes from vending machines. Tax rates still only make up 52% of the price of a pack, instead of the recommended 80%. Most glaringly, though, despite the SA Revenue Service committing to do so since at least 2007, SA has still not introduced measures that would allow it to trace cigarette packs through the supply chain or track them back to the factory where they were manufactured.

Good intentions don’t necessarily translate into good policies.

Before the government seeks to introduce what could be argued are draconian measures far beyond what is expected under its international legal obligations, perhaps it should start with getting the basics right. This could surely include something as simple as a tobacco control strategy, banning the sale of single sticks, increasing the tax rates on tobacco products and introducing traceability.

Only once the government has met its international obligations and implemented what are simply good practice measures should it consider introducing more far-reaching measures like a total ban on smoking in public.

  • Snyckers is an independent tax and customs transformation consultant, who previously worked at the South African Revenue Service. Her exposé on the role of big tobacco in fuelling illicit trade – Dirty Tobacco – was released in May 2020.


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