/ 24 January 2007

Where there’s smoke, there are fines

Self-extinguishing cigarettes, hefty fines and pictures of rotting lungs are among the ways in which the Department of Health plans to beef up South Africa’s tobacco-control laws, which are currently riddled with loopholes.

Suggestions to change the existing Tobacco Amendment Bill will be made to Parliament’s health committee at public hearings in Cape Town this week. The suggestions relate to the manufacturing of tobacco products, and changes to the regulation of sales and the advertising of tobacco products will be made later this year.

Relevant parties such as the National Council against Smoking (NCAS) and the Tobacco Institute of South Africa (Tisa) are debating stricter measures for nicotine junkies, bar owners and those in the tobacco industry who continue to ”exploit loopholes in the current legislation”, says the department.

One such measure is a self-extinguishing cigarette that will minimise harmful side effects of burning cigarettes such as fires, says the NCAS. ”The cigarette has little speed bumps along its shaft. If you don’t puff on your cigarette, it will hit one of these speed bumps and automatically extinguish itself,” explains Peter Ucko, director of the NCAS.

Fines for smoking in public places or allowing the use of tobacco products in public places will also increase, to range from R500 to R1-million. If a person smokes any tobacco product in a public place or any area within close proximity to a doorway, window or entrance, he or she will be fined R500.

Owners of a public place (such as pub owners) or employers will be fined R50 000 if they do not ensure that no person smokes in the public area or workplace. They will also be fined for selling tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18 (the original legal age to smoke was 16).

The definition of public places will include semi-enclosed areas (such as stadiums) and clubhouses. ”If someone is smoking in a stadium, it’s harmful to the 100 people around them,” says Ucko.

Furthermore, the tobacco industry will be fined up to R1-million if it does not provide information about tobacco products and their emissions to the minister of health.

However, Tisa director Francois van der Merwe says such a rise in fines is ”out of line” and that fines should be in line with offences. ”These fines transgress those for the possession of unlicensed weapons.”

Public smoking

For some bar owners, the elimination of smoking in all public places is a positive step.

Manny Cabeleira, the owner of Johannesburg’s oldest bar and restaurant, the Radium Beer Hall, says: ”The law at the moment is a total fuck-up and unfair. I think the whole system will be better off if smoking in public places is banned completely. That way — just like in Ireland — people will learn to deal with it.”

He says if the government closes the loopholes in the current law, small establishments that don’t have the facilities to provide a smoking area won’t lose customers to those bars and restaurants that ”turn a blind eye” to the laws.

One of the proposed changes to the second part of the Bill is the removal of ”misleading package descriptors such as ‘light’ and ‘mild”’.

”There’s no such thing as light or mild. They are all harmful. Such words are misleading the public into thinking that if you smoke light cigarettes, you have a less chance of getting cancer. But they all cause cancer,” says the deputy director of the Tobacco Control Programme, Kgwiti Mahlako.

The Health Department also plans to enforce the placement of graphic health warnings on tobacco-product packages — such as a picture of a diseased lung. ”It is important that people understand the risks they are taking when they use tobacco products. Picture-based health warnings help increase knowledge of the dangers,” says Mahlako.

Cigarette-vending machines will be restricted to designated smoking areas. ”You often find vending machines in the reception areas of hotels. These must be removed because they can be accessed by persons under the age of 18,” he says.

Tisa’s Van der Merwe says the ”over-regulation” of tobacco products only improves the playing field for illegal cigarette traders. About 10-million cigarettes are sold illegally every day in South Africa (up from eight million per day since 2005), with a total excise loss of about R1,2-billion yearly for the government, and a similar loss for the tobacco industry.

He says the growth in illegal trade parallels the tightening of legislative restrictions. ”By over-regulating and overtaxing the tobacco industry, [the government] has turned a blind eye to illegal traders.”

The tobacco industry also contributes approximately R8-billion in tax to the South African economy, according to Tisa.

But Ucko says this is not true. ”It’s the smokers who pay the tax: not the tobacco industry.”