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There’s a seriously unhealthy synergy between our Treasury’s tax policy architects and our health department when it comes to non-combustible nicotine products. Our health department slavishly follows the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) hotly contested shooting down of everything nicotine, while Treasury gladly widens its tax net to siphon billions of extra rands from the lucrative harm-reducing non-combustible nicotine product market. They have jointly conspired to ignore a huge body of scientific evidence showing the major health harm comes from burning tobacco, not consuming nicotine. Harm-reduction products like e-cigarettes or vaping could reduce a smoker’s risk of tobacco-related cancer, heart and lung disease by 98%. Sweden and Norway have virtually eliminated cigarette smoking (by getting their populations to switch to an oral chewing tobacco called Snus) and are now the healthiest nations in Europe. According to Dr Kgosi Letlape, head of the African Harm-Reduction Alliance, taxing harm reduction products at 75% of combustible tobacco will just put them on price par with combustibles, meaning the majority of our addicted smokers (all in lower-income brackets), will continue to make up most of the 39,100 related deaths per annum. But hey, let’s increase our tax base … and continue spending it as usual. Story courtesy of the Free Market Foundation. – Chris Bateman
South Africa’s damaging vaping regulation
By Riaan Salie*
South African legislators are seeking to regulate e-cigarette and vaping products through the draft Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill, as well as new taxation laws. The National Department of Health has started to amend current tobacco legislation through the draft bill while taxation will be levied on nicotine and non-nicotine solutions with a 40% incidence guideline. The South African Government argues that e-cigarette and vaping products are harmful and warrant regulation.
However, e-cigarettes and vaping innovations are tobacco harm-reduction products, aimed at mitigating the adverse health impacts associated with combustible tobacco products. With nearly seven million smokers in the country and 39,100 related deaths yearly, tobacco harm reduction products should be at the centre of the public health response. Importantly, e-cigarettes or vaping could reduce a smoker’s risk profile of tobacco-related cancer, heart and lung disease by 98%.
The more smokers switch to e-cigarettes and vaping, the greater net public health benefit it generates, since quitting smoking becomes a pleasurable experience through various flavour profiles while reducing smoker’s risk profile by 98%.
Shockingly, the government has chosen to frame the conversation around tobacco harm-reduction products with negative anecdotes rather than science. A discussion paper released by the National Treasury, Taxation of Electronic Nicotine and Non-Nicotine Delivery Systems, credits the gradual decline in consumption of combustible tobacco products to the implementation of taxation.
Highlighting the high value of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) and electronic non-nicotine delivery systems (ENNDS) of R2.54bn by 2018 suggests taxation and other related regulation could be applied with the same utility in stifling the e-cigarettes and vaping market.
The move to heavily regulate ENDS and ENNDS comes at a time when South Africa’s state debt-to-GDP nears 100%; in the aftermath of an abysmal cigarette ban during the lockdowns, which led to a loss of nearly R6 billion in excise taxes and the jeopardy of 300,000 jobs.
Abusive tax spending practices have become the norm across the country with many citizens restructuring their taxes to pay less. In 2021, the auditor general reported South African municipalities accumulated R26 billion in irregular expenditure, while the State Capture Commission found that the South African Revenue Service had been captured during Jacob Zuma’s administration. All these examples demonstrate that the government is incapable of using tax revenue correctly.
Heavy regulation causes exorbitant costs and consequently disincentivises the uptake of alternatives. The total excise duty to be levied on nicotine and a non-nicotine solution, e-cigarettes and vaping, will range from R33,30 to R346,00. Therefore, poorer communities, suffering disproportionately from tobacco-related diseases, would be more incentivised to continue smoking cigarettes than pick healthier alternatives.
In reality, smokers may simply opt for illicit products, which are cheaper and constitute 42% of the informal market for cigarettes. Additionally, illicit goods are more harmful since production standards are not adhered to. So, embracing tobacco harm-reduction products, as part of a health strategy, will actually lead to better outcomes by reducing smokers’ risk profile to severe disease.
The potential benefits of e-cigarettes and vaping are highlighted in a study conducted by researchers at the Centre of Excellence for the Acceleration of Harm Reduction in Italy. It found smokers with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, who switched to vaping, improved their cardiorespiratory health, increased their ability to exercise, and improved their quality of life and lung function.
Importantly, it found that only 16.7% of smokers returned to smoking cigarettes. This refutes the suggestion in National Treasury’s poorly researched paper that there is no evidence to show that e-cigarettes and vaping cannot lead to permanent absence. The Italian study demonstrates that vaping can cause harm reversal and protects smokers from nearly 7,000 chemicals in cigarettes.
Another debunkable claim, in the National Treasury’s discussion paper, is that vaping has caused respiratory illness. However, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found this has been the case only when illicit vaping cartridges mixed the cannabis compound THC.
The most alarming claim about the rising adolescent use of vaping products is refuted by Centres for Disease Control and Prevention figures demonstrating that only 20.6% of teens vaped at least once every 30 days, and nearly half used cannabis instead of nicotine. Ironically, South Africa has decriminalised cannabis and will move to legalise it.
In San Francisco, a flavour ban was passed to ‘protect the children’, which led to a surge in teenagers taking up smoking instead. A flavour ban would be more damaging to the ‘protect the children’ campaign since tobacco causes major health complications. If a rebellious child cannot vape, they will smoke.
Parents who urge government intervention to nanny their children are better off acquiring more effective parenting techniques since their child might not be suffering from a vaping problem but rather a rebellious one.
National Treasury’s paper leaves a damaging and unsubstantiated impression that e-cigarette use and vaping are harmful and pose no benefit to smokers, ignoring the fact that nicotine poses a significantly lower risk to users in e-cigarette and vaping products than in tobacco products.
Tobacco harm reduction products, e-cigarettes and vaping can aid in tobacco harm reversal and lead to a tobacco-free world. Heavy, ill-considered regulation only punishes smokers for quitting.
- Riaan Salie writes for the Free Market Foundation and is a policy fellow at the Foundation for Consumer Freedom Advancement. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the foundation.
- Alternative nicotine devices to be taxed at 75% combustibles rate
- Flash Briefing: Vaping market in Treasury’s sights
- Chilling truths on e-cigarette harm: SA joins globe in urging tough anti-vaping laws
- Vype-maker BAT banned from pushing e-cigs on Instagram and using influencers
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