/ 18 May 2020

The tobacco sales ban is a giant stimulus package for organised crime

Moves aimed at tightening cigarette-selling regulations
South Africa banned the sale of tobacco products as one of its measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

This week I had a brief face-to-face conversation with my good friend Matthew. On the advice of my lawyer/mate Justin, I add that this conversation took place under entirely legal circumstances, and won’t give any specific details of how this meeting occurred. 

I should also point out that smoking, next to talking about the clutch system on Porsches made before 1980, is one of Matthew’s favourite pastimes. So it wasn’t particularly unusual that he was smoking during this pleasant chat. What was unusual was the fact that he was smoking a slender cigarette with a somewhat garish gold band around it. A cigarette that I’m pretty sure was designed for women. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it gloried under the name of “Virginia Slim” or something like that, but I do suspect that it had a feminine, French-sounding name and was specifically created with the over-50 female market in mind. 

When I raised the issue of his highly gendered cigarette, Matthew began to blaspheme as only a man who has paid 300 bucks for a packet of ladies cigarettes can blaspheme. It was a magisterial performance. During this tirade, it emerged that although he was spending a fortune every week on cigarettes, he wasn’t smoking any less. He was just spending a lot more on cigarettes that he heartily disliked.

This is because Matthew, like hundreds of thousands of smokers in our country, is now affected by a government policy that is providing a gigantic stimulus package for organised crime. By banning the legal sale of these very unhealthy items, the government has diverted vast sums of money  from the treasury, which would spend the money on building schools and primary healthcare, into the hands of organised crime, which will spend the money on brightly coloured sports cars and skimpy lingerie for their mistresses. 

The treasury has thus far lost about R1.5-billion in revenue, and the organised crime syndicates have benefited accordingly. That’s an awful lot of brightly coloured sports cars and lingerie for mistresses. 

The thing is that bans of this nature have already tried out and we should have learned that they don’t work. From 1920 to 1933 the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol was outlawed in the United States. (But drinking alcohol wasn’t prohibited.) The Prohibition resulted in the well-documented rise of powerful criminal syndicates such as the Al Capone gang. And the Kennedys. Historians have documented how the Prohibition reduced, but failed to completely stop the consumption of alcohol.  

While other industries like clothing, tourism and construction are being left to wither away like a geranium left in the Sahara desert by an absent-minded gardener, organised crime has been (wittingly or unwittingly) carefully taken care of through the biggest stimulus package since the US government kindly pumped billions of dollars into the investment banks which had brought the world to its knees though their reckless sub-prime mortgage lending. 

I have no doubt that many of the players behind the cigarette ban have only the best of intentions — nobody is arguing that cigarettes are a good thing — the results of this ban are likely to be the opposite of what its creators intended. 

The sellers of brightly coloured sports cars and manufacturers of exotic lingerie for mistresses will probably heartily disagree.

John Davenport is the chief creative officer at Havas advertising company. He writes in his personal capacity