Millions of smokers around the country will have their eyes on the Cape Town High Court this week when the legal tobacco industry argues that government should lift its ban on the sale of cigarettes.
Watching, with equal levels of anxiety, will be hundreds of thousands of South Africans whose livelihoods are in the hands of the court.
They include tobacco farmers, processors and manufacturers, united under the umbrella of the South Africa Tobacco Transformation Alliance (SATTA), which is a co-applicant along with British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA).
Along with retail outlets — which have also been hard-hit — they are challenging the government’s decision to extend the ban on tobacco sales during Level 3 of the Covid-19 Risk Adjusted Strategy.
In its founding affidavit, BATSA argued that it has “made every effort to constructively engage with government since the ban came into force, including making detailed submissions, along with other interested parties, to various ministers, as well as directly to the Presidency”.
It said: “To date, no formal response has been received from the government, and BATSA has also not been included in any of the government’s consultation processes so far.”
In addition to the court action, SATTA recently launched a national campaign to enable the public to voice their objection to the ban. The campaign, under the hashtag Lift The Ban SA, includes an online petition that members of the public can sign.
“We have to make it clear that we have had enough. The ban is threatening the survival of the legal tobacco sector and the livelihoods it directly supports,” said SATTA.
“According to our research, more than 296 000 people’s livelihoods are at stake. This includes farmers, processors, manufacturers and retailers — many of them small business owners.
“Many of our members are already in serious financial difficulty because of the ban on sales. Our entire value chain has been at a standstill for the past 120 days.
“The continued ban makes it worse. Farmers are unable to plan: we are due to start planting for the new season but because we have no idea when legal cigarette sales will be resumed, we do not know how much to plant. In the same way, processors and manufacturers are unable to plan because they do not know how big the harvest will be.”
SATTA is not only worried about the impact of the ban on its own members activities; it is also concerned about how the ban is helping black marketeers to make millions of rands illegally, and entrench themselves in the market.
“The recent report by UCT’s Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products on the impact of the ban on cigarette sales shows one thing: that the ban has done nothing but stimulate illegal activity, and should be lifted immediately,” said SATTA.
“Not surprisingly, the same report points out that the longer the ban continues, the harder it will be to get rid of criminal cigarette networks.
“Which makes us ask, again and again: why is the government doing this? Why is it punishing legitimate farmers, for example, and favouring criminals? Why would it be happy to accept that it is losing out on R35-million on tax revenue every single day?”