Illicit tobacco trade thrives: is it government’s fault?

The government seems to be making tone-deaf decisions when it comes to combatting the country's tobacco addiction.

As the world commemorates World No Tobacco Day, the question of whether the South African government unintentionally fuelled the growth of illicit trade through its tobacco bans still hangs in the air.

Around 6 million out of South Africa’s 11 million cigarette smokers are still opting for illicit cigarettes post Covid tobacco bans, according to information supplied by the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS) that was undertaken by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), commissioned by the National Department of Health.

ALSO READ: British American Tobacco to retrench workers amid ‘ballooning’ illicit tobacco trade in SA

This translates to around 54% of smokers, which is significantly more than previously seen, before the bans, which was at 35% according to a research report from the University of Cape Town.

National Treasury reported that the annual loss of tax revenue through the illicit trade was between R9 billion and R10 billion in tax revenue for government. Experts are arguing that fault around this lies entirely on government shoulders.

But why?

According to drug rehabilitation centre, Rehab Spot, tobacco is the third-most addictive substance in the world, only preceded by heroin and cocaine.

Dr David Webb, associate doctor at Houghton House, an addiction and mental health treatment centre, on his Poetry of Addiction website, says that in active addition, using is not a choice, but a compulsive reflex that traps the addict in a vicious cycle of dependence.

As such, recovery is process. According to the transtheoretical model – a strategy that was put together in 1983 to help people quit smoking –  there are five stages to addiction recovery.

ALSO READ: Tobacco Bill: New proposal focuses on 100% smoke-free indoor areas

All these seem to have been disregarded by the South African government when it implemented its 20-week-long tobacco ban as well as the ever-increasing sin tax.

“You can’t just expect an addict to stop smoking. Treating addiction must be treated like other chronic diseases such as heart disease or asthma,” says the National Institute of Drug abuse.

So what were the implications of the tobacco ban?

During the tobacco bans, users who were not mentally prepared to kick the habit, found themselves opting for illegal methods of acquiring their tobacco fix to keep the unbearable withdrawal symptoms at bay. It was then that the illicit trade in the country started to gain momentum.

A carton of everyday brands sold for more than R1000 at the time. Once the bans were declared unconstitutional, these prices dropped considerably, so that they were much cheaper than the heavily taxed store-bought products.

With the cost of living increasing rapidly, and users like *Ronnie struggling to make ends meet while still supporting their habit, buying counterfeit cigarettes seems like the only viable option.

The dangers of illicit tobacco

What Ronnie doesn’t acknowledge though is that there are extreme health risks in consuming illicit tobacco.

According to Phillip Morris International’s Senior Vice President of External Affairs, Gregoire Verdeaux, there are a number of dangers that come with using illicit tobacco products.

“Counterfeit Cigarettes are higher in tar, nicotine and carbon monoxide. This is because they are produced illegally and without regulation, meaning that they may contain harmful and even deadly substances such as arsenic, lead, and pesticides. These substances can cause or exasperate serious health problems,” he said.

With the World Health Organisation revealing that more than 8 million people around the world die a year, as a result of smoking-related diseases, PMI is encouraging its customers to take a long, hard look at their relationship with tobacco.

Don’t start smoking

“If you don’t smoke, don’t start,” Verdeaux says, warning that the nicotine component in tobacco is highly addictive.

“If you do smoke, quit. If you can’t quit, change,” he added.

The tobacco giant is working to convince its users to leave cigarettes and opt for its smoke-free electronic tobacco delivery systems which it claims are 95% less harmful, and also eliminate the consequence of second-hand smoke. The WHO reported that of the 8 million deaths, 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.

The company also proposes that electronic devices will help tackle the illicit trade, with the technology around e-cigarettes being a lot harder to replicate.

British American Tobacco is also encouraging its users to stop smoking. “We continue to be clear that combustible cigarettes pose serious health risks, and the only way to avoid these risks is not to start or to quit,” the company said on its website.

*Name changed to protect person’s identity.

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