As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, smokers and vapers in South Africa continue to contend with another problem that has stretched on now for several months: under the South African government’s COVID-19 lockdown protocols, there is no legal way to buy cigarettes or e-juice. The lockdown has stretched on for months now, and members of the tobacco and vaping industries have had enough. They’ve taken their fight to court, challenging the ban on tobacco and e-liquid sales on the grounds that depriving adults of their right to buy those products is unconstitutional.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, South Africa instituted one of the world’s toughest lockdowns in an effort to keep people in their homes as much as possible and to help reduce the possibility that citizens’ decisions will result in worse outcomes in the event that they do contact the coronavirus. South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown included a ban on alcohol, tobacco and vaping product sales. The ban on cigarette sales in particular was instituted due to the known link between cigarette smoking and poorer COVID-19 infection outcomes. Vaping products were lumped in with cigarettes because tobacco control regulations in South Africa do not distinguish between tobacco products and vaping products.
The ban has been ongoing since March.
The Ban on Cigarette Sales Has Created a Thriving Black Market in South Africa
History has shown us that prohibitionist government policies rarely work as intended. If people want a product badly enough, they’ll find a way to get it – regardless of what the law says. That’s exactly what has happened in South Africa, with research suggesting that the COVID-19 lockdown has turned ordinary citizens into criminals. Seemingly every day, authorities catch smugglers attempting to bring alcohol and cigarettes into South Africa.
In April and May, researchers from the University of Cape Town conducted an extensive survey with the goal of determining how South African citizens were responding to the ban on tobacco sales. Of the 12,204 people who responded to the survey, only 16 percent had actually quit smoking. Of the people who had quit, 12 percent said that they were only quitting temporarily and would start buying cigarettes again as soon as they could legally do so. More than half of the people who responded to the survey said that they hadn’t even tried to quit. Most importantly, 90 percent of the respondents who were still smoking said that they had continued to buy cigarettes during the lockdown even though it was illegal to do so.
The fact that the ban on cigarette sales in South Africa has encouraged some people to quit smoking is certainly good for public health, but the University of Cape Town survey also shows that the ban has created an enormous and undue burden for law enforcement personnel in South Africa. Thousands of ordinary people now break the law in South Africa every day, making it highly likely that the ban on cigarette and e-liquid sales has done more harm than good.
At this point, it is also unlikely that South Africa’s new tobacco black market will simply disappear when the lockdown eases. The lockdown has created a thriving underground industry, and South Africa’s government will find it very difficult to shut that industry down now that it’s gained traction.
South Africa’s Ban on Cigarette Sales Is a Bungled Opportunity for Harm Reduction
Year after year, researchers produce new studies about the safety profile of e-cigarettes and how vaping compares to smoking. Vaping has existed for more than a decade now, and at this point, it seems fairly safe to say that vaping – while certainly not as safe as inhaling plain air – presents significantly less risk to health than smoking.
It is also worthwhile to note that smoking and vaping are extremely different in terms of the likely outcome one can expect in the event of contracting COVID-19. We are fairly certain at this point that smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to experience complications if they contract the coronavirus. There is no definitive evidence, however, that vaping either increases the chance of getting the virus or increases the odds of a negative outcome in the event of contracting the disease. It is highly likely, in fact, that a smoker who can’t quit would greatly improve his or her odds of a positive outcome by switching to vaping.
In banning cigarette sales, South Africa’s government could have kept vaping open as an option for those who wanted to continue using nicotine by establishing a legal framework that allowed e-liquid sales to continue during the ban on cigarette sales. In that case, it is likely that the quit rate among South African smokers would be far better than the 16 percent reported by the University of Cape Town survey. South Africa missed an opportunity to convert thousands upon thousands of its estimated 7 million smokers to a less harmful alternative.
When Will Tobacco Sales in South Africa Resume?
At the moment, the immediate futures of the tobacco and vaping industries in South Africa are uncertain. Months ago, a prominent vaping trade group petitioned the South African government to create a legal separation between the tobacco and vaping industries so that e-liquid sales could resume. To date, the petition has been unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the tobacco industry has taken a lawsuit to South Africa’s high court in Cape Town. The lawsuit alleges that, as long as tobacco products are legal in South Africa, stripping adults of their right to buy those products is unconstitutional and has been done without due process. In addition, the lawsuit alleges that the ban on cigarette sales has not accomplished its goal because it hasn’t freed up a significant number of hospital beds and has created a black market in which cigarettes are still traded every day – just not legally.
The South African government has submitted a 251-page response to the lawsuit. It’s expected that the court will convene to hear arguments within the next few days.