In South Africa and around the world, officials of a prohibitionist mindset exploited the Covid-19 emergency regulations to institute bans on their pet peeves, notably alcohol and tobacco.

Although politicians were very quick to denounce capitalists for exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to raise prices, they rushed to exploit the emergency for their own narrow, moralistic aims.

Greg Fell, a fellow of the Faculty of Public Health, a standard-setting body in the United Kingdom, made the thinking clear in a series of tweets:

Christopher Snowdon, a research fellow at the Institute for Economic Affairs, promptly responded:

In the United States, too, a doctors’ group lobbied to ban the sale of tobacco and vaping products, on the grounds that smokers fare worse with Covid-19 than non-smokers. Worldwide, anti-tobacco lobby groups have been clamouring to exploit Covid-19 as a pretext for a ban on tobacco.

Although it is entirely plausible to suppose smoking would negatively affect Covid-19 patients, as it does with other respiratory infections, the only evidence for the claim the US doctors make is a small study in the Chinese Medical Journal. It concluded that Covid-19 progresses more readily in smokers.

Two Indian doctors relied on the same study to pen a post on the blog of the British Medical Journal noting that tobacco use is a particular concern during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The World Health Organisation’s warning on smoking and Covid-19 is entirely speculative, but the UN’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control also pointed to the Chinese study to support its anti-tobacco agenda.

Extraordinary shortcomings

However, if you read beyond the abstract, the study in question has some extraordinary shortcomings. The entire sample consisted of 78 patients, and of those, only five were smokers.

The same was true for co-morbidities such as hypertension (eight patients), diabetes (five), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (two), and cancer (four), and in these cases the authors acknowledge that the sample size was too small to draw any conclusions. Why not for the smoking conclusion, then?

Like the Indian and American doctors, the UN not only ignores the fact that drawing conclusions from a sample of five smokers is laughable, but they also managed to divide 27% by 3% to get a ‘14 times higher’ risk of disease progression among smokers.

I consulted an elementary school kid, and discovered that 27 divided by three is actually nine, not 14.

Schoolboy error

Either these doctors and the UN simply copied a schoolboy error and none of them are capable of elementary mental arithmetic, or all three chose to exaggerate their already-weak claim.

In fact, the opposite might be true. Comparing smoking prevalence among Covid-19 patients in China with the prevalence of smoking in the general population ‘does not support the argument that current smoking is a risk factor for hospitalisation for COVID-19, and might suggest a protective role’.

There is also no evidence that smoking cessation will, in the short run, lead to better health outcomes with Covid-19. A timeline in Medical News Today says that a decrease in the frequency of lung infections only becomes noticeable nine months after quitting. That would not make any impact on the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Banning the sale of tobacco appears to be nothing but a random act of cruelty by petty despots

Neither the UK nor the US chose to pile on the misery of lockdown and isolation by denying smokers their small pleasures. Worldwide, I couldn’t find any country other than South Africa that exploited the Covid-19 pandemic to ban the sale of tobacco products. The only similar prohibitions elsewhere are local or regional.

Banning the sale of tobacco appears to be nothing but a random act of cruelty by petty despots.

A similar argument can be made for the prohibition on alcohol sales. Most countries closed or severely restricted bars and other places that serve alcohol, because of the obvious risks of contagion in such venues. As with cigarettes, however, I could find only local or regional cases of total bans on alcohol sales outside of South Africa.

One example of a localised alcohol sales ban is in Greenland, where alcohol sales were banned in the capital Nuuk and surrounding areas in order to reduce violence against children, and because people are ‘less aware of the dangers of contamination when they drink alcohol’.

Notoriously irritable

Ironically, the motivation to protect children reflects badly on the ban on tobacco sales. Smokers who quit are notoriously irritable for weeks after quitting. Given that they are locked up in their own homes, this cannot be good for peace in the home, and indeed, South Africa has, along with France, been singled out as an example of a ‘horrifying surge’ in domestic violence.

In Aisne, a prefecture in northern France, a ban on the sale of alcohol on the grounds that it would reduce the risk of domestic violence was quickly reversed, after discussions with addiction experts raised ‘certain possible negative consequences of a generalised measure, even a very temporary one’.

South Africa is a country with high levels of alcohol consumption. According to some estimates, 15.8 million South Africans (over 40% of the adult population) drink either regularly or on binges.

That makes a sudden prohibition on the sale of alcohol very risky. Bheki Cele, the police minister who was once fired as unfit for office, celebrates the ban on the grounds that it makes policing easier, and would like to see it extended beyond the lockdown.

It is unlikely that he has much sympathy for the millions of South Africans who suffer from alcohol abuse disorder, or have become dependent upon alcohol as a result of regular drinking. Sudden withdrawal can trigger severe symptoms, including tachycardia, disorientation, hallucinations and seizures.

Implementing an alcohol ban without rolling out extensive medical support for drinkers who are suddenly forced to quit is reckless behaviour on the part of government

Alcohol detoxification without medical supervision and supportive in-hospital care can even lead to death. Shaun Shelly, the head of TB HIV Care, an NGO, is quoted in the Mail & Guardian saying that between 1% and 4% of detox cases lead to death, which would make for an alarming number, given South Africa’s high number of drinkers.

Implementing an alcohol ban without rolling out extensive medical support for drinkers who are suddenly forced to quit is reckless behaviour on the part of government.

It is also an unconscionable attack on basic civil liberties. In an interview with 702’s Eusebius McKaiser, well-known advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi said that alcohol sales on their own do not appear to be directly relevant to Covid-19, and the only justification offered was a statement by Cele to the effect that an alcohol ban is good for fighting crime.

Ngcukaitobi believes that the exclusion of alcohol from the list of essential goods, and its consequent banning, would not survive a rationality or proportionality test in the courts.

Opportunistically promoted

Alcohol prohibition during the Covid-19 disaster is opportunistically promoted by radical temperance lobby groups such as the International Organisation of Good Templars, a fraternal order modelled on the Freemasons, and known globally as Movendi International. Its South African chapter is known as the Independent Order of True Templars, founded by church ministers in 1875.

This order was a major actor in the Temperance Movement that resulted in Prohibition in the United States, which was imposed by a constitutional amendment in 1920, before being repealed as a failure 1933.

The ban on alcohol initially resulted in a decrease in alcohol consumption and related medical problems, but by the time it ended, alcohol use and abuse was higher than before. It denied jobs to the unemployed, reduced government tax revenue, led to the widespread manufacture of bootleg liquor (often of deadly quality), and resulted in the rapid rise of organised crime groups such as the Mafia.

The murder rate fell for two years after Prohibition, but soon began to rise to levels much higher than before Prohibition. Immediately after repeal, it began to fall again, a trend which continued for decades thereafter.

If history is any guide, Bheki Cele’s dream of a long-term ban on alcohol would actually serve to increase the crime rate

During Prohibition, serious crime rose by 24%. Bootlegging was found to be a gateway crime for many gangs, who would then expand operations into prostitution, gambling rackets, drugs, loan-sharking, extortion and labour rackets, thus causing problems to persist long after Prohibition was repealed.

If history is any guide, Bheki Cele’s dream of a long-term ban on alcohol would actually serve to increase the crime rate in South Africa, and pose significant dangers to those who are forced to quit drinking, those who continue to drink illegally made alcohol, and the general public.

Already, South Africans are searching the internet to learn how to make their own alcohol, and a growing black market is developing, in which, unsurprisingly, police officers have been implicated.


Liquor stores have been looted, and a ‘ring of illicit alcohol producers’ has been busted in KwaZulu-Natal. Police have also cracked down on umqombothi brewers.

In their search for tobacco, too, many of South Africa’s 11 million smokers are turning to the illegal market.

Addiction experts have called on government to reverse the ban on alcohol and tobacco sales, because ‘the potential risk and downside are much greater than any potential benefit’, according to Professor JP Van Niekerk of the South African Drug Policy Initiative.

Industry lobbies have also argued for the bans to be lifted, and president Cyril Ramaphosa is reportedly considering such proposals, as part of a broader emergency plan to restart the country’s economy and stave off a jobs bloodbath.

Many of those who lost jobs, of course, would have nowhere to turn except going to work for illicit manufacturers and purveyors of booze and cigarettes.

Health czars

History is filled with evidence that prohibition doesn’t work, and exposes the public to far greater dangers than those from which the moralists, securocrats and health czars claim to be saving them.

Measures to encourage social distancing and infection control are certainly justifiable, but unproven, draconian prohibitions on alcohol and tobacco, particularly at a time when the public morale is already low, cannot be justified.

The prohibition lobby has no business exploiting a national disaster to further their radical agenda. Safe, sane regulations to permit the sale of tobacco products and take-away liquor should be introduced as soon as possible.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.