Lockdown cigarette ban helped 51-year-old woman stub out her habit

Smokers breathed sighs of relief on Tuesday when they were finally able to — legally — buy cigarettes again.

But for Alana Potter, it didn't make a difference. The human rights researcher said she used the lockdown and the ban on the sale of tobacco products as a way to quit smoking.

The ban kicked in when SA went into lockdown in March as one of the measures to curb the spread of Covid-19.

After a five-month prohibition that left millions smokers with the options to either quit or make a plan to buy cigarettes on the black market, the ban was lifted when level 2 regulations kicked in on Tuesday.

Potter, 51, quit smoking in April when her last pack of cigarettes, which she had bought from a friend, ran out.

“My neighbour and I were walking our dogs and we were talking about how bad smoking was for us and how we sounded like tractors when we breathe.

“She said: 'You know this is a very good time to stop smoking because you can't get cigarettes easily. And, number two, because your friends are not sitting on your balcony smoking, you won’t feel tempted.'

“I told myself this was true. That this was probably going to be the easiest time I will ever get to quit. There is no temptation, and it’s hard to get cigarettes.

“So that is what I did. I told myself that when my cigarettes run out, I am not going to buy more. When my last packet ran out I didn't get more. That was it. Sometimes you just have to be ready,” Potter said. “I saw the lockdown as a good opportunity because giving up smoking is hard. This made it easier because I couldn't smoke with friends,” she said.

Five months after, she said she was enjoying her new non-smoking life.

“It's fun. I sit with friends who are smoking but I am not smoking. I know I am going to crave, but I know not to be tempted,” she said.

Cancer Association of SA (Cansa) national advocacy coordinator, Lorraine Govender, said between April 29 and May 11, members of the Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products, based at the University of Cape Town (UCT), conducted an online survey among smokers to determine how they responded to the ban on cigarette sales during the lockdown. It also evaluated how the lockdown affected the market for cigarettes in SA.

She said the survey was filled out by more than 16,000 respondents.

Govender said the survey indicated that about 41% of smokers had attempted to quit smoking cigarettes during lockdown.

“Of those who tried to quit, 39% had successfully quit at the time they completed the survey. This result can be interpreted as a public health victory indicating that smokers certainly have a need to quit and certainly require further support to assist them to quit,” she said.

Govender said all cigarettes were bad for a person's health.

“One cigarette is not healthier than another. The quantity of nicotine, tar and son in a cigarette does not mean it is safer to use. The rules relating to this only exist to regulate the tobacco industry since higher dosages of nicotine can result in a stronger addiction. It is not intended to protect the consumer,” she said.

She said during the 2019/2020 financial year, Cansa had 1,186 volunteers who were going through withdrawal and wanted to quit. However, since April 2020, they had 1,100 new registrations, which may be indicative of smokers needing assistance with quitting.

Executive director of the National Council Against Smoking, Dr Yussuf Salooje, said licit and illicit cigarettes were both bad.

“Legal and illegal cigarettes are made in the same factories so there is no chemical difference between them. A survey by the University of Cape Town found that most illicit cigarettes sold in SA were made by local manufacturers, members of the Fair-Trade Independent Tobacco Association and British American Tobacco SA. A poison is a poison is a poison,” he said.

Money wasted on tobacco during lockdown

Salooje said coughing was linked to smoking for two reasons.

“Smoke irritates the lungs which causes coughing — the smoker’s cough. After many years of smoking, the damage is permanent and is called chronic bronchitis. When people stop smoking the lungs' cleaning system starts working again. Phlegm production and a cough after quitting are signs of healing,” he said.

He said it was sad that a lot of poor people chose to feed their nicotine addiction instead of feeding their families during the lockdown.

“Money that could have been spent on food was wasted on tobacco. A lot of poor people went to bed hungry. It is sad that a few people opted to feed their addiction, and benefit cigarette companies, instead of feeding their children.

“Cigarette manufacturers profited from charging higher prices. Richer and stronger tobacco manufacturers are bad for the country. More smoking means more death and disease and economic harm,” Salooje said.

Salooje said one of the positives of the lockdown ban was that between one and four million people quit smoking.

“Different surveys provide different estimates. The UCT survey (of mainly rich and educated smokers) found 9% (one million) smokers quit. A M4Jam survey estimates that 49% (four million) smokers quit. Fewer smokers is good for health and the economy. Fewer people will die from TB, heart disease, cancer and lung disease. Smoking costs the SA economy about R42m annually. For every rand the government gets in tobacco taxes it costs the county R3,” he said.

He said if the people who have quit have stopped permanently, the country would be immeasurably better off.

“Millions will avoid early, unnecessary and painful deaths. Workers will be more productive (losing fewer work days) and the economy will benefit. Cigarettes kill up to one in two smokers. It is the most dangerous consumer product on the market,” he said.

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