Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

Thys Visser, the late CEO of investment holding firm Remgro, is credited with having said something to this effect: "There are more serious problems than smoking a cigarette." Of course, Visser had to say that — he made a living from manufacturing cigarettes. No doubt he was reacting to the trend of regulating the trading and smoking of cigarettes that has squeezed the industry across the world. In an effort to limit smoking — due to its harmful effects on public health — SA outlawed the advertising of tobacco products about 20 years ago.

Evidently that was not enough to achieve the desired effect. Government said this week that it would gazette for public comment the Control of Tobacco Products & Electronic Delivery Systems Bill. If passed, the new law would ban smoking in outdoor public places. It would also prohibit cigarette vending machines and, for the first time, seek to regulate e-cigarettes and other nicotine-delivery devices.

While the good intentions of the bill are indisputable, seeking a total ban on smoking outdoors seems a step too far. Laws must be just, fair, implementable and policeable.

The Tobacco Products Control Amendment Act of 1999 was targeted at retailers and advertisers. It banned the advertising of tobacco products, regulated their sale and introduced health warnings on labels. It was a success in that it was both fair and policeable, as the retailers were directly accountable for the sale of their products.

The difference with the proposed legislation is that it seems to unfairly target smokers themselves. By seeking to ban smoking outdoors — after smokers had, rightly so, been chased outdoors by the previous legislation — the legislation would invite the kind of defiance that has killed e-tolling. The widespread public defiance that e-tolling elicited has rendered it unenforceable.

As it stands, the latest anti-smoking legislation will only meet the same end. SA has more serious and urgent problems that need government’s attention than the smoking of cigarettes by adults of sound mind. The police already have their hands full policing real crime (and failing).

Smoking a cigarette is one of those "crimes" whose real victim is the "perpetrator" — the smoker. As such, criminalising smoking tobacco would join the smoking of marijuana and prostitution in the victimless categories of "crimes".

On both those fronts, government and the ruling party have covertly conceded defeat. The high court in Cape Town has directed parliament to pass legislation to legalise "recreational" use of marijuana. This has not been opposed. At its national conference, the ANC also formally resolved to lift the criminal ban on prostitution.

That’s not because it has suddenly realised the benefits of a legal sex trade; instead, it is an admission that it would be a waste of scarce resources to pursue consenting adults who are in the recreational business that sex is meant to be.

Besides, a progressive government should seek to expand, not limit, the freedoms of its citizens.

Government has no business deciding when and how adults smoke.

Its business, when it comes to tobacco products, is to ensure legislation regarding ingredients that go into producing tobacco is strictly adhered to. And that all industry stakeholders pay their taxes, which should be used to pay for a proper health-care system. In this aspect, the tobacco industry has played its compulsory role, the cost of which is actually borne by the smoking public. Turning smokers into criminals is an assault on personal liberty. It is also not the best way to treat some of your biggest tax contributors.

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