Coronavirus: Lockdown Op-Ed 3

Up in Smoke: Public reflections on decision to extend the ban on tobacco sales

By Benjamin Roberts, Carin Runciman, Narnia Bohler-Muller and Kate Alexander 4 May 2020

Ultimately, the pattern of survey results on the matter of cigarette sales suggests that irrespective of the decision taken (banning or allowing sales), this will continue to be a highly contested and debated matter, say the writers. (Photo: AdobeStock)

A University of Johannesburg and Human Sciences Research Council survey suggests that, on average, the public supports the decision made by the government in maintaining the ban on cigarette sales, in line with the public input received by the National Command Council. However, an analysis of the survey data shows that there is a strong class and racial divide underlying views on unbanning cigarette sales.

In a decision that has provoked much debate and consternation in some quarters, the Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta), Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, announced last Wednesday evening the government’s plan to extend the ban on tobacco sales under lockdown Level 4, which came into effect on Friday 1 May. This comes after an initial declaration by President Cyril Ramaphosa last week to allow cigarette sales to resume as part of the initial relaxation on lockdown regulations.

The minister indicated that the decision was a collective one that came after public comments were received from about 2,000 citizens arguing for reconsideration on tobacco sales. However, are the public submissions received reflective of the general public sentiment in this regard? To provide evidence on this, we examine the pattern of responses to the online Covid-19 Democracy Survey conducted by the University of Johannesburg and Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) that has been ongoing since 13 April.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it! Opening of sales an unpopular choice

Our survey included a question on support or opposition to 12 different policy choices that had been suggested by policymakers and academics to ease the socio-economic burden of lockdown on South African society. One of the items included in our list was “allowing cigarettes to be bought”.

Only a minority of adults (18%) favoured restrictions on tobacco sales to be lifted. This is comparatively low relative to a range of other policy options relating to supporting households and communities, protecting workers, sustaining businesses and strengthening public health interventions. It is nonetheless similar in character to support for wealth taxes (16%) and alcohol sales (13%).

This finding suggests that, on average, the public would support the decision made by the government in maintaining the ban on cigarette sales, in line with the public input received by the National Command Council. Yet, how unified or divided are South Africans in relation to this matter? A finer-grained analysis of our data shows that there is a strong class and racial divide underlying views on unbanning cigarette sales.

Slightly over a third (35%) of those with a personal income exceeding R20,000 per month favour cigarette sales, compared to 16% of those earning less than R2,500 per month. This difference is mirrored in other class-related measures.

Those with post-matric qualifications were more in favour of cigarette sales than those with less than Grade 12, 26% compared to 14%. Support for cigarette sales among suburban residents (31%) was double that of those living in informal settlements (15%).

Black African adults were far less supportive of unbanning sales (11%) than white (51%), coloured (33%) or Indian (28%) adults. Age also seems to matter, with those aged 18-24 years less in favour of cigarette sales than those aged 55 years and older (15% vs 33%)

One of the interesting findings relates to institutional trust, especially trust in President Ramaphosa’s handling of the pandemic. This matters instrumentally for support of unbanning cigarette sales. Only 17% of those who feel the president is doing a “good or very good job” in responding to the pandemic support cigarette sales, whereas 37% who feel he is doing a “bad or very bad job” in dealing with the pandemic favour the unbanning of cigarette sales. This pattern could be partly due to the fact that those who favour the unbanning of cigarette sales have adopted harsher views of the presidential and government performance.

 Holy smoke: The minority view

While the continued restrictions on cigarettes seem to be generally supported, tobacco is an addiction and, so far, no substantive support has been put in place for addicts. This may be contributing to the levels of stress, anger and depression people reported experiencing under lockdown.

The tobacco industry is lobbying hard for the removal of restrictions on sales, as it is having a significant economic effect on this industry, and by extension, the economy. The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (FITA) even indicated an intention to launch an urgent application over the government’s decision to press ahead with the cigarette ban. For those in our survey siding with the tobacco industry lobby, what do they have to say regarding their position? These personal messages to the president were captured following the announcement of the ban extension:

“Well done, you doing a great job, but I really need to smoke.”

“Lift the ban on cigarettes, and know that our human rights will always be what we fight for, never think of taking them away.”

“Please motivate the rationale behind restrictions on exercise, alcohol, and especially the sale of cigarettes, or remove those restrictions. Please allow the sale of cigarettes — smokers will find ways to smoke, whether it’s legal or not.”

“Mr President, I support all the restrictions you have imposed, except for tobacco and alcohol. You could have said we can buy and consume at our own private place. We are not your children. We can’t just quit smoking just like that. And people still sell cigarettes but at a triple amount. We are still smoking, at the highest expense.”

“pls unban cigarette because of the black market.”

“put d sigaret back.”

A clear concern is that smokers are turning to black market options to procure cigarettes, and that this often comes at an added expense. There are also appeals to allow people the freedom to choose whether or not they want to smoke. 

The stub of the matter

Ultimately, the pattern of survey results on the matter of cigarette sales suggests that irrespective of the decision taken (banning or allowing sales), this will continue to be a highly contested and debated matter. The balance of opinion clearly resides with those opposing the unbanning of sales, in line with the government decision.

Yet, the reality is that wealthier citizens are voicing their demand for access to their chosen creature comfort. This group of citizens, with the tobacco industry, represents an influential lobby group that will continue to put pressure on government decision-makers to change their minds, drawing attention to the social, economic and potential democratic costs of such regulations.

There is also a risk that backtracking on presidential announcements and over-regulating adult citizen choices may begin to progressively diminish the robust confidence that has until now been vested in the government and executive leadership. The ban extension stands for now, so urgent attention is needed to provide appropriate assistance for smokers who want to quit smoking or who are suffering from withdrawal symptoms. DM/MC

This is number three in a series of articles by researchers from the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change (CSC) and the Human Sciences Research Council’s Developmental, Capable and Ethical State division (DCES). Data comes from the online multilingual Covid-19 Democracy Survey. This can be undertaken, free of charge, by anybody in South Africa aged 18 or over with access to the internet. Go to:https://hsrc.datafree.co/r/covidUJ. Results are weighted by race, age and education, making them broadly representative of the population. Phase 1 of the survey covers the days from 13-18 April, Phase 2 from 18-27 April, and Phase 3 from 27 April onwards. See https://www.uj.ac.za/newandevents/Documents/UJ HSRC summary report v1.pdf. The survey uses the #datafree Moya Messenger App on the #datafree biNu platform.

Benjamin Roberts is a chief research specialist and co-ordinator of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). Carin Runciman is an associate professor at the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg. Narnia Bohler-Muller is divisional executive in the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) research division at the HSRC and adjunct Professor of Law, University of Fort Hare. Kate Alexander is Professor of Sociology, South African Research Chair in Social Change, and director of the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg.

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