Right of reply: Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa response to M&G article

Francois van der Merwe, the chairperson of the Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa, has responded to Bhekisisa’s article “Did big tobacco buy Twitter?

Bhekisisa’s article in the Mail &Guardian of September 7 sought to suggest some underhand motive in Tisa’s #TakeBackTheTaxCampaign, which seeks to raise public awareness of the scale of the trade in illegal cigarettes and its cost to our society. It is a pity that the column did not acknowledge that the campaign is clearly aimed at helping South Africa tackle a real and costly problem.

Firstly, the column criticised Tisa for paying to promote the #TakeBackTheTax campaign. It is unclear what else was expected: This is a public awareness campaign, which the Mail & Guardian itself ran for a fee.

The column further criticised the campaign as an attack on the recently proposed Tobacco Bill. The campaign has not mentioned that Bill, not once. This claim was therefore totally baseless and it was irresponsible to make an accusation with no evidence to support it.

Tisa has separately criticised the Tobacco Bill in public for many reasons but has never used #TakeBackTheTax to do so.

Notably, the Bill has been openly welcomed by the very companies who are selling cigarettes in this country at prices as low as R5 a pack, well below the minimum tax owed to government of R17.85. This should have set off multiple alarm bells. It came as no surprise that the Bhekisisa article was retweeted by the same companies.

The Mail & Guardian’s article also took issue with research from Ipsos, commissioned by Tisa, which shone a light on the illegal cigarette problem and the culprits behind it. The Ipsos research methodology has been peer reviewed and independently validated by experts in this field. A detailed report of Ipsos’s findings was disclosed publicly on July 5 and is available on Tisa’s website. It exposed that illegal cigarettes are on sale in more than 100 000 shops for around R10 on average.

Notably again, the article does not question the actual findings of the research, but rather the fact that the underlying proprietary data was not shared with the Mail & Guardian journalist. There is a very good reason for this.

To ensure continued accuracy, the research will be rerun at regular intervals to track and expose trends in the illicit tobacco economy. Public disclosure of the data set would necessarily include details which the illicit organisations involved in the illegal cigarette trade could use to frustrate future fieldwork by Ipsos. It could well endanger the safety of tobacco retailers in the sample. That said, Tisa is willing to disclose the underlying data — which is extensive, technical and complex — to organisations who are qualified to analyse it and who will guarantee its confidentiality. We have already offered it to both Treasury and the South African Revenue Service (Sars).

Prof Van Walbeek from UCT, quoted by Bhekisisa, confirmed that the trade in illegal cigarettes has exploded since 2015. No-one disputes this, except the illegal manufacturers themselves. Treasury has confirmed it. Sars has confirmed it. Parliament has demanded action. So what reason could anyone legitimately have to criticise Tisa for conducting the only available research into the problem and campaigning for government to put a stop to it?

Bhekisisa quoted Prof Van Walbeek as casting doubt on our campaign’s claim that the government could get back R7-billion in tax revenue if it clamped down on criminal tax evaders in the tobacco industry. He suggested that people might instead smoke less and therefore, not all of the R7 billion would be recoverable. He might be right. But what would be wrong with that?

South Africa cannot lose by tackling illicit tobacco. Either South Africa will get its money back or people will smoke less, or, most likely, a bit of both. Either way, isn’t that something worth campaigning for?

We will continue to campaign, including by advertising in traditional and social media and we will continue to keep the Tobacco Bill out of the #TakeBackTheTax communications. 

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