Tax Justice SA: Cigarette ban costs fiscus R35m daily, exposes millions to Covid-19

Tax Justice SA media statement:

Official government research shows that the lockdown ban on cigarettes is needlessly exposing millions of South Africans to the spread of Covid-19.

Tax Justice South Africa (TJSA) has repeatedly warned that prohibiting people from buying tobacco products alongside essentials in shops and stores would encourage the spread of the virus as smokers travelled and met others to purchase illegally.

Now official data from the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) shows that people buying illegal cigarettes are 50% more likely than others to have had close contact, within two metres, with more than 10 others outside the home.

The major new survey shows that 7m adult South Africans say they can still purchase cigarettes illegally during the seven-week lockdown.

Of 19,330 people surveyed by the HSRC between 4 and 28 April, 12% said they could buy cigarettes. 

As about 20% of South Africans smoke, that means the equivalent of 60% of smokers have been able to buy from illegal dealers, costing the fiscus R35m every day, but it is potentially exposing more South Africans to the virus.

In informal settlements, 24% of residents – effectively all the smokers – say they can do so.

“Cigarette buyers were in close physical contact with people outside their homes more often than non-purchasers,” said the HSRC. “The data indicates therefore that they were not practising appropriate social distancing.”

Despite there being 50% more drinkers than smokers in South Africa, the survey found that illegal cigarettes (12%) were 4 times as likely as alcohol (3%) to be found for sale during lockdown.

TJSA founder Yusuf Abramjee says the survey proves that not only is the continuing tobacco ban an economic catastrophe costing the fiscus R35m every day, but it is potentially exposing more South Africans to the virus.

“Police Minister Bheki Cele said earlier this week that the illicit trade in tobacco, which was already 30% of the market, has increased during the lockdown,” said Mr Abramjee.

“Before lockdown, one in three smokers were buying illicit cigarettes. These figures show that, even now, six out of 10 smokers say they can buy cigarettes. The HSRC has proven Minister Cele’s analysis that illicit trade has increased substantially.

“SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter has also spoken about the ease with which it is possible to buy cigarettes illegally.

“But most frighteningly the figures suggest that, in the act of buying the cigarettes illegally, South Africans are exposing themselves and others to the virus.

“If you turn 11 million smokers into criminals then they are going to be more covert and engage in closer contact with more people.  These figures show that people buying cigarettes illegally are 50% more likely to have close contact with 10 or more people than, say, people who are buying bread, mielies or meat in a shop or supermarket where social distancing is being enforced.

“The logical and right solution is to allow cigarettes to be sold in proper retail establishments so people can buy them at the same time as the mielies and meat. That way the government gets an extra R35m a day in taxes, the criminals lose out and, crucially, we minimise the spread of the virus.

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