The case involving British American Tobacco South Africa’s (BATSA) challenge to the tobacco sales ban by government continues in the High Court in Cape Town today.
Yesterday, BATSA said COGTA Minister Nkosazana Dlamini- Zuma had infringed on the rights of consumers, farmers and others in the value chain of the tobacco industry by implementing a ban on tobacco. The ban was imposed in March this year amid the lockdown.
BATSA says Dlamini- Zuma’s argument, which they say states that a ban on tobacco will help make more hospital beds available for COVID-19 patients, is not based on any scientific evidence. South Africa is currently the only country in the world that has a tobacco ban in place amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The lead attorney representing BATSA, Michael Evans, says the ban is having an extremely negative impact on the country’s economy..
“All she is done is free up 16 ICU beds at any given point in time. That’s all that she has achieved through this ban. Against that, she is completely destroying the entire tobacco trade from farming all the way down, she’s affecting the rights of consumers, she’s cost the fiscus R4 billion in excise duty and this is the impact of the ban. Besides which it has been a huge boost to the illicit trade and that’s another impact of the ban.”
A smoker who is one of the applicants in the urgent application says smoking helps her cope with stressful situations. Melinda Ferguson, who is a former drug addict, says smoking helps people stay away from hard drugs. She says smoking also helps people focus on staying sober.
“I’ve had huge problems with heroin and crack in my life. I’m 20 years clean and sober, but I’ve relied on tobacco in many ways for my recovery and psychologically during lockdown it’s been an incredibly stressful time. I’ve really needed to smoke my organic tobacco, It’s not even like chemical tobacco.and I was very excited to be a part of this case. Tobacco is not illegal in South Africa,” she says.
Legal counsel for government told the court that the number of smokers across the country has decreased from eight million people by nearly 50% due to the tobacco ban imposed during the lockdown. Government also argues that the number of patients who are smokers and who develop severe COVID-19 symptoms have stayed low because of the ban.
“We on the government’s side of this case are not going to say that the ban is 100% effective. The evidence doesn’t support that. What we will say is that there is evidence that a significant number of people have quit smoking throughout several months since the end of March and there is medical evidence to substantiate government’s cautious approach to our scarce public health resources,” says one of the lawyers representing Government is Andrew Breitenbach.
In the video below, analysis of BATSA’s cigarettes ban court case:
Support for tobacco, alcohol sectors
Business Leadership South Africa has thrown its weight behind the call on government to rethink its decision on the ban of cigarette and alcohol sales in order to steer SA’s economy back on path to recovery.
“Despite its honest purpose, the unintended consequences of this ban have caused harm that far outweighs whatever positive outcomes it hoped to achieve. A recent UCT study found that the ban on the tobacco products has done nothing more than fuel the illicit trade industry and the researchers called for its immediate repeal. Furthermore, Crime Stoppers International, a non-profit organisation focusing on transnational crime, last week also called for the tobacco sales ban to be lifted, noting that it had provided a huge stimulus to the illicit trade in cigarettes, which was already an unwelcome drain on the South African economy before lockdown,” the organisation says in a statement.
BLSA says criminal syndicates have benefited from the ban as it has provided them with opportunities which have been at the expense of legitimate business activity and public safety as the products sold are unregulated.
“The lockdown has made it even more profitable to trade in illegal tobacco and alcohol products,” says Tebele Luthuli, managing director of Business Against Crime SA and director of policy and legislation at BLSA.
“Supply and demand have meant that sellers can charge premium prices. This illegal practice has weakened the private sector’s contribution to employment opportunities and long-term economic growth. This will eventually undermine the rule of law and citizens’ trust in government.”
“Our government desperately needs every cent through tax revenue to curb this scourge and save lives, which will ultimately be used to build the shattered economy once this pandemic is over.
“The government needs to be flexible around the issue of the alcohol ban. We also welcome and support the recommendations from the South African Research Council calling for the lifting of alcohol ban, saying there is no extreme pressure on hospital beds set aside to treat COVID-19 patients,” Luthuli adds.
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