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HSRC question boom in illicit cigarette sales ahead of court battle

The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) will head to court on Tuesday 10 May to appeal the decision to extend the ban on the sale of cigarettes, however a report by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) has found that the ban has reaped health benefits.

British American Tobacco (BAT) might have backed out of a court showdown with the government, but Fita have every intention of fighting tooth and nail to see the ban lifted.

Fita said that it does not deny the health risks of tobacco but says the ban has not stopped people from smoking, with the illicit trade of cigarettes being fuelled by an “illogical” ban.

However, a report by the HSRC found that only 12% of smokers had managed to get their hands on cigarettes during the lockdown. Having surveyed over 19 000 people during the lockdown, they made some interesting discoveries.

“The majority of smokers (88%) were not able to buy cigarettes during the lockdown, suggesting that the ban was efficient in reducing cigarette access and therefore use.” Read the report. “Overall, 11.8% of smokers were able to buy cigarettes during the lockdown,” the council found.”

“Cigarette buying was also more prevalent among those who were able to drink alcohol with friends – 26% of people who drank alcohol with friends during the lockdown also bought cigarettes,” said the council.

They added that while the ban may not have fuelled the illegal trading industry to the extent that has been widely alleged, smoke seekers had come into far more risky situations by trying to buy cigarettes.

“Over 40% of those who were able to buy cigarettes came into close contact (within 2m) with more than 10 people when away from their homes, compared to 26.4% of smokers who did not buy cigarettes during lockdown.

“Therefore, during the lockdown cigarette buyers were in close physical contact with people outside their homes more often than non-purchasers.”

The council said its findings indicated that cigarette buyers were not practising appropriate social distancing.

“Sharing tobacco products like cigarettes or hookah pipes can also increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission in communal and social settings,” said the council.

“The current ban on the purchase of tobacco products during the lockdown is therefore a crucial element of trying to reduce the impact of the virus on patients and the health-care system.”

The council added that the current provisions afforded to the country’s healthcare system would not be sufficient should a large number of the country’s smokers contract COVID-19.

“At current conservative estimations, if even 1% of South Africa’s eight million smokers were infected and 5% of these required ICU or high-care facilities, the health-care system would not be able to cope,” it said.

“If only 1% of the eight million smokers were to contract COVID-19, this means that 80 000 smokers would be infected countrywide. If an estimated 5% were to need ICU, this would translate to about 4 000 people needing ICU hospital beds and ventilators in the whole country.

“Under current calculations, this would exceed the availability of ventilators and place health workers at risk.”

Originally appeared in The South African at

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