/ 28 May 2020

Smokers’ fight to light up moves online

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On the group “Cigarettes South Africa” there are several complaints of being scammed by unscrupulous dealers. (Reuters/David Mercado)

South African smokers say they’ve waited to exhale long enough and are threatening civil disobedience if they’re not allowed to buy cigarettes legally.

For the duration of the coronavirus lockdown, government regulations have banned the sale of cigarettes, tobacco products, and e-cigarette liquids. During a parliamentary question and answer session, Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma stood firm in her position that smokers are more at risk of suffering complications from Covid-19 than non-smokers.

“Covid-19 is a novel virus that affects the lungs. And if they do get the infection, they are more likely than non-smokers to get a serious disease. That means they need ventilation.” 

Her words — and the subsequent unbanning of alcohol but not cigarettes under level three of the lockdown — have raised many people’s ire. 

Unable to meet up and show their anger, people have taken to social media platforms such as Facebook. These comprise a mixture of anger at the state and advice on how to break the law. The Mail & Guardian joined some of these groups to get a sense of the conversations. In one, posters jokingly refer to cigarettes as “sweets” — advertising the sale of “sweeties” for as much as R150 a packet.

On the group “Cigarettes South Africa” there are several complaints of being scammed by unscrupulous dealers. “If you get scammed or pay over R600 for a carton you are stupid. Quit smoking rather,” reads one poster. The person is derided by commenters who vow never to quit. 

On the “Covid-19 Smoker’s [sic] — Lift the Ban on Cigarette Sales” group, people who tip off police about the sale of illegal cigarettes are left with a warning — “Snitches fall in ditches”. 

Another group is calling for immediate action in the form of protest and civil disobedience. The group, “Protest March Against the Tobacco Ban”, wants supporters to march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, as well as to Parliament in Cape Town. With about 5 000 group members, and nearly 8 000 people interested in attending the march, organisers say they have popular support behind their cause to fight for their personal liberty. 

Duncan Napier says he founded the protest group after becoming despondent. The owner of a waterproofing company doesn’t smoke cigarettes. He vapes from an e-cigarette. “Twisp and e-cigarettes are not tobacco products. It’s not a leaf; it’s not grown. It has nicotine, yes, but it’s not smoke, it’s a vapour,” he stresses.

Napier says the idea to formalise the online group into a physical protest of dissatisfaction came after frustration with not getting answers from the government about why he was not allowed to buy his vaping solution. 

“What we are doing is right. It’s about more than tobacco. It’s about the entire system. People are being disrespected; they’re being stonewalled, and that’s the problem. Government is not being open and transparent and putting their confidence in the people. And if someone doesn’t have confidence in you, then you don’t have confidence in them.”

On people using online platforms to advertise and sell tobacco products online, Napier condemned the practice, saying that although people are desperate, this is counterproductive to their fight, and he wants people to stop. 

“Some of these groups are poison. Some of these people are just complaining. They don’t have any objections. It’s just to vent,” Napier says. 

Nicolette Anderson, a member of Napier’s group, says she joined the online campaign because she believes the regulations barring the sale of cigarettes is unfair. “There has been no documentation that’s been provided to justify the ban. There’s no statistics or proof and it’s an infringement on our human rights.”

The organiser of the “Covid-19 Smoker’s” group mentioned earlier said it is meant to provide a place for smokers to stand in solidarity and inspire them to do so. Tersia Coetzer in Kimberley said she started the group after seeing people paying exorbitant prices for black market cigarettes.

“It’s not easy. Few people can afford the illegal cigarettes, and my heart goes out to the older people who can’t afford those,” she said. 

Coetzer said she has signed petitions, and hopes cigarettes will be available in level two of lockdown. 

Despite the banter among smokers, people claim that being forced to go cold turkey is affecting their mental state, making them moody and angry. Many are also posting links to Napier’s planned march next week. 

But already there are divisions in the online group planning to march. Members have pulled out because Napier has not yet obtained a permit. Organisers say they’re in the process of organising the legal requirements and are confident their voice will be heard. 

There may be some respite for smokers: Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu reportedly told Eyewitness News that it is likely the ban on the sale of cigarettes will be dropped when South Africa goes into level two of lockdown.