The tobacco industry is threatening legal action after South Africa reversed a decision to end its ban on the sale of tobacco products.
To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the government earlier this year suspended sales of cigarettes. The ban was scheduled to end on May 1, but on Wednesday, the government suddenly reversed course after it received 2,000 requests to keep the measure in place.
Retailers had placed thousands of orders for cigarette and vapor products ahead of the anticipated lifting of the ban.
Smokers across the country fumed, with an online petition garnering close to half a million signatures by May 1.
British American Tobacco (BAT) South Africa complained that, unlike the ban’s supporters, the tobacco industry, retailers and tobacco consumers were not given an opportunity to comment on the proposed reinstatement of the ban.
“This was grossly unfair and unlawful,” said BAT, adding that the online petition of more than 400,000 in favor of lifting the ban dwarfed the 2,000 individual submissions.
Meanwhile, the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association said it was confident of overturning the ban, having decided to proceed with legal action after the government’s backtrack.
“We had a meeting with our legal team, and the decision was unanimous, and we will be proceeding with the legal steps,” said chairperson Sinenhlanhla Mnguni.
Shadrack Sibisi, chairperson of the South Africa Tobacco Transformation Alliance, which represents black emerging tobacco farmers, said the continued ban would impact more than 8,000 workers and 30,000 dependents.
“Our losses are huge. From March 27 until today, we have sold nothing,” he said. “We harvested in early January and were ready to go, but then lockdown happened. We have been sitting with boxes ready, and now with the recent rains we are going to have to redry and repackage. The tobacco still needs to be processed.”
Others applauded the government’s decision to continue the tobacco sales ban, saying that health considerations supersede commercial interests. “While the right of the individual is important, when we are facing a crisis that poses a danger to society, the rights of the collective to health must take precedence,” said Professor Pamela Naidoo of the Heart and Stroke Foundation.