Stronger tobacco control regulation will reduce harm

COMMENT

The second tobacco industry interference index report (TII Index) for South Africa shows an improvement from a score of 72 in 2018 to 58 in 2019. The report, produced by the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC), reviews the efforts of governments to protect public health policies from the tobacco industry’s influence. As a signatory to the World Health Organisation’s framework convention on tobacco control (FCTC), South Africa is obliged to protect the formulation and implementation of public health policies for tobacco control from tobacco industry influence in line with FCTC Article 5.3.

Globally, the industry uses its financial muscle and political influence to slow down the development and implementation of FCTC policies, which have been shown to save lives. The report highlights loopholes that are being or could be used by the tobacco industry and provides recommendations to firewall public health policies and stop such tobacco industry interference.

The lower TII Index score of 58 in 2019 for South Africa indicates a reduction in tobacco industry interference. Nevertheless, a closer look reveals that the government still needs to make more urgent and bold commitments and take action.

The report largely attributes our improved score to the introduction of better systems at the South African Revenue Service (Sars). Sars relaunched its large business centre for effective and efficient revenue collection. It has also reinstituted periodic visits to tobacco manufacturing sites and has deployed customs inspectors to all border points. Sars initiated a programme to exchange information on imports and exports with other countries, including Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho. A civil process to recover R200-million lost to the fiscus through the illicit tobacco trade has also been instituted by Sars.

These initial steps over the last year show both an improved capacity within Sars to tackle the illicit trade in tobacco products, and a renewed commitment to deal with tax evasion by elements of the tobacco industry. At the launch of the TII Index Report, Professor Corné van Walbeek from the research unit on the economics of excisable products said, “Sars plays a crucial role in ensuring that the tobacco industry is held accountable, especially with regard to taxes.”


Although the developments are commendable, the report recommends that Sars speedily implement a track-and-trace system that is independent of the tobacco industry. Track-and-trace systems have been proven to reduce illicit trade globally and increase tax revenue, as seen in Kenya. The report notes that delays in the tender process for this system only benefits the tobacco industry.

The report also notes that the tobacco industry is benefiting from the delays in the finalisation of the Control of Tobacco and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill of 2018 (Tobacco Bill). The Tobacco Bill, once passed, will disallow charitable contributions. The report shows that organisations linked to the government still partner with and receive funds from tobacco companies. For instance, Mobile Agri Skills Development and Training, an NGO funded by British American Tobacco South Africa, has an existing contract with the department of rural development and land reform to provide mentorship and business support for reform projects. At the launch of the 2020 TII Index Report, Professor Lekan Ayo-Yusuf from the Africa Centre for Tobacco Industry Monitoring and Policy Research highlighted how the industry has continued to inject large philanthropic contributions in South Africa to create a positive public image under the guise of corporate social responsibility.

The report also recommends the development of policy and protocols to disclose and record all government interactions with the tobacco industry and the introduction of a code of conduct for political leaders and government officials. Article 5.3 guidelines require the development of a clear code of conduct that prescribes the actions within which public officials should deal with the tobacco industry and sets accountability and transparency as a precursor for any interactions with the tobacco industry. 

Currently, government is not required to disclose its interactions with the tobacco industry and political parties are not required to disclose financial contributions. According to the report, more transparency, for instance, through the implementation of the Political Party Funding Act, will force political parties to disclose private funding and make it possible to monitor and stop industry influence.

Unless it is stopped, the tobacco industry will continuously use myriad tactics to slow down implementation of FCTC-aligned policies in South Africa. The leaked Philip Morris International (PMI) 2014 blueprint, which shows the industry’s strategy to subvert the FCTC and interfere with policy, serves as an example of the tobacco industry’s tactics. It indicates how PMI plans to manipulate politicians and build alliances across different government departments, and to find relevance in broader public interest through mobilisation of tobacco growers, consumers and retail organisations. Support from a diversity of sectors allows tobacco companies to frame a multidisciplinary challenge to tobacco control.

The TII Index Report is a valuable tool that monitors tobacco industry activity as required by Article 5.3 of the FCTC. While there have been improvements with regard to government action to prevent tobacco industry interference in public health policy, the score of 58 out of 100 in this year of review shows that there is much work to be done.

South Africa is obliged to take steps to protect public health policy from tobacco industry interference. It is time that government put in place the policies and safeguards necessary to do this.

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Sharon Nyatsanza
Sharon Nyatsanza is the project and communications manager of the National Council Against Smoking.
Savera Kalideen
Savera Kalideen is the executive director of the National Council Against Smoking.

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