South Africa’s lockdown has been lauded and condemned as one of the strictest and longest in the world. Possibly the most controversial aspect of this lockdown has been the ban on the sale of cigarettes. Promoted by Cooperative Governance minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the ban has led to a huge loss of revenue from taxes on legal cigarettes, and a flourishing black-market trade.

The history of prohibition in 1920s America, and the prohibition of recreational drugs across the world, has made the case plenty of times before. If consumers want something, a state ban isn’t going to stop them. Cigarette smugglers, black-market dealers and criminal enterprises are making a killing as previously law-abiding citizens are being forced to make back-alley deals to sate their addiction – something that can’t end just by government decree.

These consumers have been rattled by having to deal with shady dealers, often selling inferior products for tremendous prices. Many consumers have turned to harsher illegal substances such as weed and other recreational drugs, as some of them have become cheaper than tobacco.

Smokers from around the world have commented on South Africa’s cigarette ban.

Nazlıcan Kanmaz from Turkey: ‘Smoking is a sport in Turkey and the government is trying to disincentivize it through sin taxes that currently make up 85% of the price of a pack of cigarettes. It is a paternalistic approach, but still not as much as banning all tobacco products, such as in South Africa. Lockdowns are already quite stressful in Turkey, as they are usually announced last minute, and I cannot imagine the stress levels of nicotine consumers if the government would enforce such an ill-informed paternalistic policy during a moment of global crisis.’

Sin-tax revenue

As of 1 May 2020, an estimated R1.7 billion in sin-tax revenue was lost as a result of the prohibition on alcohol and tobacco sales. Alcohol sales have since been re-legalised, but the government is maintaining the ban on cigarettes (which may change as multiple organisations take the state to court over the ludicrous policy).

The cigarette ban has cost South Africa and South Africans dearly. The question is: why do it? Tobacco smoking is a human pastime of thousands of years. We know about the health problems already. Consumers are informed on the packaging of the cigarettes themselves that their habit is unhealthy.

The government has argued that smoking increases the risk of Covid-19 infection, but, as the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) argues, tobacco does not increase the risk any more than many other products. In fact, in its own medical reports, the government has admitted there is no link between smoking and Covid-19.

Banning the sale of cigarettes was arbitrary. And now there have been increased attacks on tobacco, calling for a ban on smoking in public altogether, even after the lockdown ends.

Not the only health risk

Smoking is not the only health risk in a country. If protecting lives was really the main concern, then cars would need to be banned to prevent car accidents, and almost every type of processed food and all sugared goods would be banned for their possible health risks.

It is a slippery slope to ban goods for the good of the public’s health, as it takes away an adult’s freedom to make informed choices about what they can and should put into their own body.

Being human and being free means having the freedom to make bad decisions. And that is even presuming that smoking is a bad decision in the first place. Statistically, stepping into a car is more dangerous.

Consumers in other countries, many of them much more affected by Covid-19, can only scratch their heads when they hear about the heavy-handed approach in South Africa.

‘Another burden’

Andre Freo from Brazil argues: ‘When thinking about an efficient public policy, the positive externalities for society must be arguably greater than the destruction of value for the individual. In Brazil today, we see an unprecedented health crisis, but the respect for consumer choice and freedom prevails, even under the new reality that Covid-19 imposed on us. People are already suffering great losses in their personal and professional lives with the disease – the government should not impose another burden on society.’

The role of public policy, especially in a time of crisis such as this, should be to address the actual pandemic and make reasonable policies that benefit the people – not take away choice from adults and attack our human dignity.

The smoking ban was irrational. It has led to untold economic expense, social issues arising from smokers seeking illegal cigarettes and a huge loss of trust for the government. We are an international outlier when it comes to this unscientific ban.

It was an arbitrary decision, and the government will learn that it can’t treat its people like children, even in the midst of a pandemic.

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

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Nicholas Woode-Smith writes for the Free Market Foundation, and is a Council Member of the Institute of Race Relations. He is a firm believer in human liberty and reason and supports rational policy that supports freedom and the rule of law. Woode-Smith is an economic historian, political analyst, and fiction author of the Kat Drummond Series and Warpmancer Saga, and has written hundreds of articles on South African politics, economics and history. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.