South Africa Lifts Tobacco Ban

    Consumers will be able to legally purchase tobacco products in South Africa again this week, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Saturday.
     
    Sales of tobacco products and alcohol have been banned since March 27 as part of a nationwide lockdown to stem spread of the coronavirus. Alcohol sales were prohibited to ease pressure on hospitals, allowing doctors in emergency wards to focus on Covid-19 rather than road accidents and other alcohol-related injuries. Tobacco products were restricted because of the health impacts of smoking as well as the risk of contamination between people sharing cigarettes.
     
    Despite the announcement, the Fair-Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita), which represents seven local cigarette makers, said it would continue its legal challenge of the ban. The organization wants to prevent the government from being able to reinstate the tobacco product ban should cases of Covid-19 spike again.
     
    Another reason for Fita to continue the case is cost. The organization’s legal challenge was initially dismissed by the High Court, but on Saturday the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) granted Fita permission to appeal that ruling. In its decision, the SCA temporarily set aside the costs order currently against Fita. Should Fita discontinue the case, the costs order would be reinstated, leaving the association liable for millions in legal fees.
     
    South Africa’s tobacco sales ban has been controversial. Tobacco product manufacturers have questioned the science behind the measure, arguing that a short-term ban on a product whose health risks become evident only in the long run makes no sense. They also questioned the rationale of the argument around cigarette sharing. Tobacco shortages and high prices of black market cigarettes would only increase the likelihood of smokers sharing their “stompies,” the tobacco companies said.
     
    A separate challenge mounted by British American Tobacco’s (BATSA) hinges on the ban’s unconstitutionality. Lawyers for the company told the Western Cape High Court that the harm caused by the ban far outweighs the benefits to the public health system. BATSA advocate Alfred Cockrell argued that the ban violates the rights of consumers and the right to free trade. He also questioned the argument that smoking could result in a severe form of Covid-19.
     
    Fita says the ban has devastated South Africa’s tobacco sector. The association is reportedly considering seeking reparations for the millions of rand of income lost by tobacco traders during the lockdown.
     
    Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma accused the cigarette industry players of being motivated purely by its financial interests.