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Coronavirus in South Africa: Smokers fume at cigarette ban

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The illicit trade in cigarettes in South Africa is now in full swing after the sale of tobacco was banned at the end of March as part of strict measures imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus, as the BBC's Pumza Fihlani reports.

Whereas once Michelle could go to her local shop in South Africa's commercial hub, Johannesburg, to buy cigarettes she is now having to do a secret deal.

The 29-year-old economist finds sellers through contacts in WhatsApp groups and arranges a covert meeting in order to get her nicotine fix.

"Once you've found a seller you can trust, a meeting point or pick-up point is arranged," she said.

'No chance to stock up'

Michelle, which is not her real name, is not the only one. What was perfectly legal two months ago has turned thousands of people into potential criminals.

"No warning was given for the ban, so I personally wasn't sufficiently prepared - either to get a stockpile or prepare to go without," Michelle, who has been smoking for four years, told the BBC.

Getty Images
Smoking in South Africa

  • 37% of menaged 15 or over smoke

  • 8% of womenaged 15 or over smoke

  • Most smokebetween one and nine cigarettes a day

  • Smoking decreasedsince 1998

  • $790m was raisedin government revenue from smoking last financial year

Source: SA Demographic and Health Survey 2016, Sars

South Africa's lockdown regulations are among the toughest in the world and also include a ban on the sale of alcohol.

This will be relaxed from 1 June, with people allowed to buy alcohol to drink at home and "only under strict conditions on specified days and for limited hours", according to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

However, he said the ban on the sale of cigarettes will remain "due to the health risks associated with smoking".

Cigarette dealers could spread coronavirus

The government justified the tobacco ban on health grounds based on advice from its own medical experts as well as from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO said that although research is still being carried out, there was reason to believe that smokers would be more adversely affected than non-smokers if they contracted Covid-19.

According to a 2016 government survey, more than nine million South Africans aged 15 and older smoke, burning through billions of cigarettes a year.

"While I understand the health reasons that have now been brought forward, I would like the opportunity to decide for myself when and how to handle my smoking, especially as someone who also smokes as a way to deal with anxiety outside of medical treatment. I believe the ban is excessive," Michelle said.

She also thinks that driving the trade underground poses additional health risks at this time.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSmokers often use WhatsApp to contact their cigarette dealer, who then delivers to the door

The black-market seller is "someone who has potentially touched scores of other people trying to sell their cigarettes", the young professional said.

More than half a million people have added their names to an online petition calling for the government to change its mind.

"We have been provided no scientific evidence to support a tobacco ban," Bev Maclean, who started the petition, wrote.

"With legal tobacco product sales being banned, consumers are turning to the illegal market and paying high prices for mostly illicit cigarettes that don't pay taxes to government."

image captionOther dealers stand on street corners looking for customers

In the last financial year, South Africa's tax collecting agency raised about $790m (£650m) from tobacco sales. A two-month ban could therefore cost the government about $132m in lost revenue.

There is also the claim that the ban is unconstitutional.

The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita), which represents business and smokers' interests, has gone to court and argued that the decision on the ban was made without the correct legal framework.

Why did the government change its mind?

Fita was particularly frustrated by what it describes as an "inexplicable about-turn" by the government.

On 23 April, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a national address that tobacco sales would be allowed as the country eased lockdown restrictions for the first time.

media captionThe impact of South Africa's alcohol and cigarette ban in lockdown

Six days later the minister in charge of the coronavirus response, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, announced that the ban would remain, which upset a lot of smokers.

"There must clearly have been a basis for the president… to clearly and unequivocally state: 'The sale of cigarettes will be permitted,'" Fita head Sinenlanhla Mnguni wrote in court papers.

"It is doubtful the president would have given that undertaking without proper consultation and a mandate."

Fita is demanding to see the papers that informed the government's change of heart.

Quitters 'benefit in hours'

But the government is not budging. Explaining the U-turn, President Ramaphosa said that "government is making every effort to act in a way that advances the rights to life and dignity of all our people".

The authorities believe that by either reducing smoking, or even quitting, the chances of recovering from coronavirus are increased.

There are also general health benefits.

Coronavirus in Africa:

"The science says smokers begin to benefit from quitting a few hours after they quit," explained Dr Catherine Egbe, who works in the alcohol, tobacco and drug unit of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC).

"A smoker's heart rate improves, the carbon monoxide in the blood drops to normal and within two weeks to three months, the risk of a heart attack drops and the lung function begins to improve," she told the BBC.

Dr Egbe is one of the scientists who has publicly supported tobacco ban.

"While we know the worst is not yet over, current statistics point to the fact that the country could be doing something right.

"The pressure faced by the government is coming from those who want to prioritise profits over human lives," said Dr Egbe.

Smoking less in lockdown

Along with the SAMRC, the Cancer Association of South Africa and the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa, as well as a host of other health bodies, support the ban.

And it seems that some people have been using this time to try and give up smoking.

"We have seen a doubling in the number of calls that we normally receive on our Quitline," said Savera Kalideen, executive director at the National Council Against Smoking.

There has also been an increase in "requests for support to join our WhatsApp group, which provides 30 days of support, tips and messages to smokers who want to stop smoking".

Michelle is not giving up, but has cut down.

"I'm oddly smoking a lot less than I did before the lockdown.

"I average two cigarettes a day now, whereas before the average was six or seven. It wasn't a conscious health choice," she said.

"I think it's mainly because I'm working from home so some of my usual routine, smoking on the drive to and back from work and at work has been disrupted."

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