Why smoking could be banned inside your own home in SA

JOHANNESBURG — The tobacco industry and smoking are controversial topics in South Africa. But a newly proposed bill appears – on the surface – to risk basic civil liberties and entrench what could be interpreted as a nanny state. The Draft Tobacco Bill intends banning smoking in your own home and implementing standardised packaging on cigarette packs, among other more stringent measures to curb smoking. It’s a step too far says Andrew Neumann, who is the general manager for Japan Tobacco International (JTI). In this interview, Neumann also explains the rationale behind something called the #HandsOffMyChoices campaign. Take a listen. – Gareth van Zyl

This interview is sponsored by Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and it’s a pleasure to welcome Andrew Neumann who is the general manager for the group in Southern-Eastern and Central Africa. Andrew, welcome to the podcast. Before we start talking about the #HandsOffMyChoices campaign, can you explain who JTI is for people who perhaps don’t know them?

JTI stands for Japan Tobacco International. It’s one of the large multi-national tobacco manufacturers. We operate internationally. We have a number of offices here in SA, as well as the Republic of the Congo, Zambia, and so on. We are best known for the brands that we sell. So, in the SA market, we have Camel, Winston, LD, and a few others as well. We’re also currently distributing Nahkla tobacco, which is a shisha product.

What is the #HandsOffMyChoices campaign all about and why should smokers and even non-smokers take notice of it?

Well, the #HandsOffMyChoices campaign was launched in June of this year and it’s a response to a Draft Tobacco Bill that was put out for public comment by the Ministry of Health. Effectively, that public health bill is certainly one of the most far-reaching tobacco regulations that have ever been introduced in SA and I would actually suggest that with respect of a number of provisions in it – it’s probably the most aggressive set of tobacco regulations that have ever been launched anywhere in the world, certainly all at once. Our concern was really that up to the point of the publishing of that bill there was very little public awareness, either in the business community who were going to be directly affected or among the public who would also be affected by this bill. There was very little awareness of what was contained in that bill and what the impacts of it would be. And because there wasn’t really a level of public awareness, there wasn’t a debate happening. This bill has a number of provisions in it that we support but it also has a number of provisions in it that will have some fairly negative impacts on the overall business environment for tobacco, as well as on smokers. So, really, the general purpose of #HandsOffMyChoices is to drive a public debate. JTI, as a responsible tobacco company, believes that there should be public health regulation on tobacco. Tobacco is a harmful product. It represents a significant risk to the health of smokers and the Ministry of Health absolutely has to have regulations in it and enforce those regulations. I think the concern about this bill is how sweeping it is and whether it’s appropriate for SA, and whether there’s been any debate over the potential negative consequences of some of the provisions.

Can we go over some of the issues that are proposed in this bill? I know that one of the things that are proposed is the standardised packaging of tobacco products. So, can you maybe just run through some of the most pressing issues in that bill?

Sure, and you’ll have to forgive me because there’s a lot in it so, I may forget some of the details. But effectively, first of all, it’s not just applied to tobacco. This bill applies equally to both tobacco as well as electronic cigarettes or vaping cigarettes – basically all nicotine delivery products. The bill reiterates the complete banning of advertising sponsorship. Largely speaking, advertising sponsorship is already banned in SA. It bans the branding of products. So standardised packaging would mean that there will be no branding colours or any distinguishing features aside from the name of the cigarette brand. It bans all smoking indoors, including some restrictions on smoking in your own home. It bans all displays of cigarettes at retail. So, all retailers will be required to put their cigarettes behind cover and not make them visible to the public before a smoker were to ask for them. It bans vending machines. It also increases penalties quite significantly on breaking the rules. In some of the more extreme cases, if you were to break some of the smoking in public places rules, you could face up to a year in jail for that.

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Young man vaping and holding an e-cigarette. Photo Credit: www.blacknote.com.

As you can imagine – if you look at the retail sector for instance – there are well over 200 000 retailers involved in selling tobacco. All of them would be very dramatically impacted. Then if you add onto that all of the bars and taverns that currently allow smoking, restaurants with separate smoking areas – it’s really far-reaching on all of those aspects.

A lot of people who are non-smokers who are reading or listening to this might say, ‘We need more of these kinds of regulations in order to continue to curb smoking’. But what is the impact of this because it looks like a lot of these are ‘nanny-state’ type regulations. You’ve mentioned, for example, that government wants to prevent people from smoking inside their own homes. Surely, on your property, you have the right to smoke there?

Absolutely, and I think this is exactly where we’re raising our concerns. If we start with the objective that we want to reduce smoking, does that then necessarily follow that you say to people you can’t smoke in their own home? At what point do you step-over encouraging people to live a healthy lifestyle to actually intervening and coercing them into behaving in a way that you want them to? I think there’s a number of provisions in this bill that step-over that line, which is a concern. Now, it’s a democracy, there’s public debate and people can make their own decisions. And as long as that’s done openly and transparently, it may be reasonable. But I have to say that as an individual I’m concerned about that.

In terms of its impact – this is another place we would raise concerns. We know that in the UK when they passed the total smoking in public places banned, they saw 7 000 pubs close in the years following that and, effectively, non-smokers did not tend to spend as much in pubs as smokers had. So, it wasn’t a one-to-one replacement. Again, maybe it’s acceptable but there needs to be a discussion if it impacts the economy. If you’re a large retailer, a large organised retailer perhaps, implementing a total display ban may be reasonable. But we’re in a country where there’s a huge number of spazas and other types of informal traders. How are they going to compete in that environment? How are they going to implement these rules? That’s not been discussed.

Then we talk about the plain packaging, which I think is one of our largest concerns. The only country that’s implemented plain packaging for a prolonged period of time is Australia. In Australia, they implemented this bill in 2013 and I’m going to read you a quote. This is from the 2016 National Drugs Strategy Household Survey conducted by the Australian government. What they say is, ‘For the first time in over two decades the daily smoking rate did not significantly decline over the most recent three-year period, 2013/16.’ So, on the one hand, you have some definite impact on the economy and on the individual. You have to balance that against achieving your objectives of reducing smoking. In the particular case of a number of these provisions the facts just don’t fit the objective.”

Andrew Neumann is the general manager for Japan Tobacco International (JTI).
Andrew Neumann is the general manager for Japan Tobacco International (JTI).

I think that’s really where our biggest concerns lie.

Obviously, in SA we also have illicit cigarettes in the market. What do you think these regulations could do in terms of the illicit market? Could it potentially make that market even bigger than what it is right now, the black market, so to speak?

Again, I’ll pull from the Australian example because it’s the most well-researched. Australia, is an island – it’s very well regulated. They had an illicit problem that was less than 10%. Compare that to the rate of illicit here in SA today, it’s almost 30%. In the case of Australia, they saw an increase of between 30% and 40% of illicit in the years following. Effectively, what happens is that when you go to plain packaging a lot of the branding around the product disappears. Smokers don’t quit as a result of that and that’s been the experience, but what happens is that the perceived value of their brand decreases and, as a result, what happened in Australia is that people there started walking into their local retailer and saying, ‘give me the cheapest product that you have, the cheapest cigarette.’ In addition, that meant that these illicit brands that may have struggled because they’re not perceived as good quality, or safe, and so on, they actually gained a greater foothold. If you were to compare that to the SA example, where you have over 30% – it could be, frankly, disastrous in terms of the level. I think, really, our concern there is, aside from the fact that its very damaging to legal businesses, is that it involves a tremendous number of people in illegal activity and anything you do to encourage that sort of lawlessness is a fairly significant concern for society. Even non-smokers should be concerned about that.

What is the status of this tobacco bill in SA currently, and have you provided your input into it? Have you spoken to the government about your concerns?

We have so, the comment period ended on 8th August 2018, so they gave a little more than 30 days – the period was 90 days for the public to comment. We know that there were thousands of submissions. The unofficial number that I’ve heard is that there were over 20,000 submissions made to the Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Health is now required to go through those submissions and then consider, at the very least, revisions to the bill before introducing it to Parliament. Then it would go to Parliament for a debate. I think our concern is that there were a number of discussions publicly held by the Ministry of Health around this bill and they seemed to be quite reluctant to consider making any substantive changes to this bill. So, I think there is still a need for more public debate before this bill reaches the final stages.

Just as the last question. If anybody wants to provide their inputs into this bill and get involved with the #HandsOffMyChoices campaign where can they go? Are there social media pages? Is there a website?

Absolutely. So the website is www.handsoffmychoices.co.za. If you go to the ‘participate’ section of that website we have not only the Ministry of Health contact email information but we also have the contact information for a number of members of Parliament, including the President. We would encourage you to, at the very least, become educated on what’s in the bill and think it through for yourself. Then comment as you feel appropriate. There are a number of other associations that have expressed concern, who would be looking for support. We’ve seen the Informal Traders Association has expressed concern. A number of the unions have expressed concerns, there’s the Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa, of which JTI is a partner, they’re also are our potential venue for making your comment known. I would absolutely encourage people to at least, do the basics, to understand what’s in the bill. It’s a sweeping change in terms of individual rights, and the amount of coercive authority the Ministry of Health has over lifestyle choices. They should at least be aware of what it means and they should definitely be heard before a final decision is made.

Andrew Neumann, thank you so much for chatting with us today and telling us a bit more about #HandsOffMyChoices.

Thank you so much Gareth, take care.

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