Opinionista Sisi Ntombela and Meokgo Matuba 29 May 2020

This is why the tobacco ban must stay

We must certainly fight the illicit trade of cigarettes. Yet the contrary to this cannot simply be to legalise the sale of all cigarettes. Then we could easily legalise all forms of illicit substances such as drugs. 

As we approach 1 June and lockdown Level 3, we are faced with the reality that the sale of alcohol will become available again. As usual, the sale of alcohol will once again negatively affect those who are already poor and vulnerable. 

Indeed, while we may fight for and protect even the right of the poor to purchase and consume alcohol, we must be able to reflect on the devastating consequences the abuse of alcohol has on our communities and country. 

We who are better off must be able to sacrifice our own desires in order to work towards the greater good.

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Another example of this substance abuse and its devastating effects is the sale of cigarettes. 

In the Human Sciences Research Council behavioral online surveys conducted to examine the knowledge, attitude, perceptions and practices of South Africans towards Covid-19 infections, 88% of respondents, who were smokers, indicated that they were not able to buy cigarettes. Less than 12% had access to the sale of cigarettes. 

In other words, the sale of illegal cigarettes is not as common as is purported. 

Of those who had access to cigarette sales, the less than 12%, the majority were in informal settlements or townships. Sadly, but not surprisingly, those who were less conscious or confident of protecting themselves against Covid-19 were also the ones who were found to be buying these illicit cigarettes, during the lockdown, in the main. 

The surveys also indicated the correlation between the sale of cigarettes and the availability of alcohol, with nearly three-quarters (72%) of respondents indicating that they could access cigarettes and alcohol despite the bans on the sales of both. A quarter of those who consumed alcohol with friends during the lockdown, also bought cigarettes. 

Cigarette buyers during the lockdown were found to not adhere to social distancing practices, especially outside their homes, and a third of smokers reported that if they or family members needed to isolate, this would be impossible given their living conditions. 

There is then a serious correlation between crime and poorer communities. Those who suffer from crime the most in our country are those living in poorer communities. Yet we see this now even during the lockdown with the illicit sale of cigarettes and, hitherto, alcohol. 

We also find that the communities that are most in a predicament with regards to the inability to take serious social distancing measures are those who live in poor or informal settlements. We know all of this and yet some among us continue to advocate for the sale of substances that encourage social ills and ill behaviour despite the poor living in these conditions. 

We must certainly fight the illicit trade of cigarettes. Yet, the contrary to this cannot simply be to legalise the sale of all cigarettes. Then we could easily legalise all forms of illicit substances such as drugs. 

Even without Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown, smoking and alcohol, the abuse of which has a terrible impact on even non-smokers and non-drinkers, remains an immense challenge in our country. We must be able to tackle the sale of these substances despite the lockdown. 

In a household where social distancing is near impossible, a smoker now risks the health of those around him or her because they become passive smokers. In communities that have to depend on public healthcare and where that healthcare already has limited resources, we now have people being admitted with Covid-19 complications simply caused by smoking.

A national survey found that in 2017 a fifth of South Africans aged 15 years and older smoked cigarettes; that is nearly 8 million people. If just 1% of these became infected with Covid-19, a seriously conservative estimate, then that would mean 80,000 smokers would be infected countrywide. Again, conservatively speaking if 10% of the 80,000 needed serious medical attention such as ICU and ventilators, that would translate into 8,000 people in a country that currently only has an estimated 4,000 ventilators. 

The reality with Covid-19 is that the numbers are simply astronomical and we cannot afford the luxury of allowing people to access substances which will lead to them needing medical treatment – given the limited healthcare resources. 

Yet the limitation of healthcare resources is simply not limited to South Africa. It is a worldwide phenomenon and we have seen the most developed countries, the US, China, Italy and Spain, among others, suffer because of these limitations in healthcare. 

As we face this crisis, South Africa needs a social compact with all its communities. We need those who are fortunate enough to see the devastating effects that the sale of cigarettes especially, whether licit or illicit, has on our poorer communities. We need these communities who enjoy the luxury of being able to practise comfortable social distancing and who have access to private healthcare to sacrifice and think about those who do not. 

We are in this together. If we do not sacrifice, the consequences, for all of us, will be fatal. DM

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