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South Africa’s new vaping tax won’t deter young smokers

South Africa’s new vaping tax won’t deter young smokers
South Africa’s new vaping tax won’t deter young smokers. (Photo by Romain B for Unsplash)

South Africa’s vaping tax is not well-targeted to reduce consumption of vaping products by the youth.

Throughout the world, governments impose excise taxes on products like alcohol and tobacco to reduce their demand. The South African government has implemented a tax on vaping products for the same reason. Reducing demand is necessary as there is growing evidence that vaping products are not harmless. The new vaping tax has enraged vaping lobby groups and vaping manufacturers. The vaping industry argues that e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes. It also claims that the tax will spawn an illicit industry, that people will go back to smoking traditional cigarettes, and the tax will not dissuade the youth from starting vaping.

In one article the industry claims that the excise tax will increase the retail price of e-cigarettes by more than 100%. Another article claims that the retail price will increase by 217%. Drawing from the work of the Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products where we are based, this article analyses the price increase claims and the effectiveness of the excise tax regime on vaping products. We do not explore the rest of the industry’s claims – the government has already responded to some.

Youth and lifelong addiction

Disposable vapes, which are closed systems thrown away once the liquid is finished, have become increasingly popular among the youth. These are not teenagers switching from smoking cigarettes to e-cigarettes, but rather teenagers who are initiating a potential lifelong addiction to nicotine through vapes. The vaping industry claims it sells only to people aged 18 and older, but this isn’t true.

In 2022, nine schools (both publicly and privately funded) in three South African provinces were surveyed. Among the 5,583 learners in grades 8-12 (high school learners) who completed the survey, 15% used vaping devices. The prevalence is higher among grade 11 (17%) and grade 12 learners (27%).

These high prevalence rates are not surprising given that vaping devices are marketed to the youth. Vaping devices come in many shapes, flavours and colours. One vape sold by online retailer Takealot is shaped like an ice lolly. Airspops disposable vapes, made by a UK company called Airscream, are very popular in South Africa. Retail chain Pick n Pay sells a 3ml AirsPops for R95 (the price had not changed since at least August 2022 to 14 June 2023).

The fact that the retail price for these products has not changed suggests that the new excise tax is either absorbed by the industry or there is old stock on the market. AirsPops are also sold at retail chain Spar, by informal traders, and online (for instance, on Takealot, together with many other brands of disposable vapes).

There is growing competition in both the closed disposables vapes market and the open systems market. Open systems allow the user to refill the liquid in a vaping device. E-liquids are sold in a variety of nicotine strengths and volumes (typically from 20 ml to 100 ml). Nicotine-free e-liquids are not supposed to contain nicotine, although trace quantities are sometimes present. The increased competition in the vaping market has put downward pressure on e-liquid prices.

Since 2004, the National Treasury has targeted an excise tax burden of 40% on cigarettes. This means that the excise tax should be set such that it comprises 40% of the recommended retail price of popular-priced cigarettes. Since the excise tax on cigarettes is set as a specific tax (in 2023/24, the rate is R20.80 per pack of 20 cigarettes), higher-priced cigarettes are subject to a lower tax incidence, and lower-priced cigarettes to a higher tax incidence.

In recent years the excise tax increases have generally exceeded the retail price increases, with the result that the average excise tax incidence has increased and is currently about 45% for popular-price cigarettes. If VAT is included, the total tax incidence on popular-priced cigarettes is around 58%.

While equivalence with cigarette taxation is a controversial topic, the current tax on e-cigarettes yields tax burdens consistently below the tobacco tax burdens (except for the 100ml e-liquid). (See Table 1 in the original article). The new tax will affect disposables the least, and e-liquids sold in large containers the most.

Users of 100 ml bottles of e-liquid are likely to be seasoned vapers and are more likely to vape as an alternative to smoking cigarettes. Youths who are experimenting with or starting vaping are not likely to purchase large containers of e-liquid; they would typically start with disposable vapes.

This is a problem because the excise tax is not well-targeted at reducing the consumption of vaping products among the youth. In our submissions to the National Treasury and Parliament’s Select Committee of Finance, we argued that to address this anomaly the government should implement a minimum excise tax amount. We suggested a minimum tax amount of R50 per unit/container.

Such a minimum amount would have no additional tax impact for e-liquid containers with more than 17.5 ml but would have an impact on small-volume containers, especially disposables. The tax incidence on a 2ml Vuse disposable would increase from 6% to 37%. The tax incidence of e-liquid (sold in units of 20 ml or more) would remain the same.

Other than imposing a minimum excise tax on all vaping products, we propose that the National Treasury should, each year, increase the excise tax on e-cigarettes by the inflation rate, plus a pre-announced additional percentage. This will ensure that e-cigarettes become less affordable over time. Pre-announced tax changes are done in countries such as Australia, which increased the excise tax on cigarettes by 12.5% above the nominal increase in average wages for eight consecutive years from 2013 to 2020. Through a multi-year approach, tax increases are more predictable.

Addressing the flaws

The vaping industry’s response to the excise tax on vaping e-liquid has been predictably fierce. By focusing only on large containers, the industry has created the impression that the tax increases will have a large impact on the prices of all vaping products. However, these large containers comprise only a modest proportion of the market. Most vaping products will experience only limited price increases under the new tax. A concern for the public health community is that vaping products that are most used by youth are subject to the lowest tax burden. South Africa does not need a new epidemic of addiction. The excise tax on vaping products will go some way to reduce the demand for these products. Unfortunately, there are flaws in the current tax system. We hope that National Treasury will address these in future Budgets. DM

This story was first published on The Conversation.

Nicole Vellios is a Senior Research Officer at the University of Cape Town. Corne van Walbeek is a Professor of Economics and Director of the Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products at the University of Cape Town.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • A P says:

    This article cites “growing evidence” and provides a link. The link goes the governments draft document, which does not go into depth citing evidence.

    So the statement is kind of misleading, and slightly alarmist.

    It is also being repeated without a basis.

    A simple Google search would have provided you with a real link, and the view that the evidence is not in fact growing. It is the same as it has always been: inconclusive.

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