South Africa’s new vaping tax won’t deter young smokers

06 August 2023 - 14:48 By Nicole Vellios and Corne van Walbeek
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South Africa does not need a new epidemic of addiction, argues the writer. Stock photo.
South Africa does not need a new epidemic of addiction, argues the writer. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/everyonensk

Throughout the world, governments impose excise taxes on products like alcohol and tobacco to reduce their demand. The South African government has implemented a tax on vaping products for the same reason. Reducing demand is necessary as there is growing evidence that vaping products are not harmless.

The new vaping tax has enraged vaping lobby groups and vaping manufacturers. The vaping industry argues e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes. It also claims the tax will spawn an illicit industry, that people will go back to smoking traditional cigarettes, and the tax will not dissuade the youth from starting vaping.

In one article the industry claims  the excise tax will increase the retail price of e-cigarettes by more than 100%. Another article claims the retail price will increase by 217%.

Drawing from the work of the Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products where we are based, this article analyses the price increase claims and the effectiveness of the excise tax regime on vaping products. We do not explore the rest of the industry’s claims — the government has already responded to some.

We conclude that the vaping tax is flawed because it is not well-targeted at reducing the consumption of vaping products among the youth. Young people who are starting to vape are more likely to buy disposable vapes, which attract less tax. As currently structured, the excise tax is not sufficiently targeted at reducing, or preventing, the use of vaping products among youth.

Youth and lifelong addiction

Disposable vapes, which are closed systems thrown away once the liquid is finished, have become increasingly popular among the youth. These are not teenagers switching from smoking cigarettes to e-cigarettes, but rather teenagers who are initiating a potential lifelong addiction to nicotine through vapes. The vaping industry claims it sells only to people aged 18 and older, but this isn’t true.

In 2022, nine schools (both publicly and privately funded) in three South African provinces were surveyed. Among the 5,583 pupils in grades 8-12 (high school pupils) who completed the survey, 15% used vaping devices. The prevalence is higher among grade 11 (17%) and grade 12 pupils (27%).

These high prevalence rates are not surprising given that vaping devices are marketed to the youth. Vaping devices come in many shapes, flavours and colours. One vape sold on online retailer Takealot is shaped as an ice lolly. Airspops disposable vapes, made by a UK company called Airscream, are very popular in South Africa. Retail chain Pick n Pay sells a 3ml AirsPops for R95 (the price had not changed since at least August 2022 to 14 June 2023).

The fact that the retail price for these products has not changed suggests the new excise tax is either absorbed by the industry or there is old stock on the market. AirsPops are also sold at retail chain Spar, by informal traders, and online (for instance, on Takealot, together with many other brands of disposable vapes).

There is growing competition in both the closed disposables vapes market and the open systems market. Open systems allow the user to refill the liquid in a vaping device. E-liquids are sold in a variety of nicotine strengths and volumes (typically from 20ml to 100ml). Nicotine-free e-liquids are not supposed to contain nicotine, though trace quantities are sometimes present. The increased competition in the vaping market has put downward pressure on e-liquid prices.

Since 2004, the National Treasury has targeted an excise tax burden of 40% on cigarettes. This means that the excise tax should be set such that it comprises 40% of the recommended retail price of popular-priced cigarettes. Since the excise tax on cigarettes is set as a specific tax (in 2023/24, the rate is R20.80 per pack of 20 cigarettes), higher-priced cigarettes are subject to a lower tax incidence, and lower-priced cigarettes to a higher tax incidence.

In recent years the excise tax increases have generally exceeded the retail price increases, with the result the average excise tax incidence has increased and is currently about 45% for popular-price cigarettes. If VAT is included, the total tax incidence on popular-priced cigarettes is around 58%.

While equivalence with cigarette taxation is a controversial topic, the current tax on e-cigarettes yields tax burdens consistently below the tobacco tax burdens (except for the 100ml e-liquid). (See table 1 in the original article). The new tax will affect disposables the least, and e-liquids sold in large containers the most.

Users of 100ml bottles of e-liquid are likely to be seasoned vapers and are more likely to vape as an alternative to smoking cigarettes. Youths who are experimenting with or starting vaping are not likely to purchase large containers of e-liquid; they would typically start with disposable vapes.

This is a problem, because the excise tax is not well-targeted at reducing the consumption of vaping products among the youth. In our submissions to the National Treasury and parliament’s select committee on finance, we argued that to address this anomaly the government should implement a minimum excise tax amount. We suggested a minimum tax amount of R50 per unit/container.

Such a minimum amount would have no additional tax impact for e-liquid containers with more than 17.5ml, but would have an impact on small-volume containers, especially disposables [(See table 2 in the original article)]. The tax incidence on a 2ml Vuse disposable would increase from 6% to 37%. The tax incidence of e-liquid (sold in units of 20ml or more) would remain the same.

Other than imposing a minimum excise tax on all vaping products, we propose the National Treasury should, each year, increase the excise tax on e-cigarettes by the inflation rate, plus a pre-announced additional percentage. This will ensure that e-cigarettes become less affordable over time. Pre-announced tax changes are done in countries such as Australia, which increased the excise tax on cigarettes by 12.5% above the nominal increase in average wages for eight consecutive years from 2013 to 2020. Through a multiyear approach, tax increases are more predictable.

Addressing the flaws

The vaping industry’s response to the excise tax on vaping e-liquid has been predictably fierce. By focusing only on large containers, the industry has created the impression that the tax increases will have a large impact on the prices of all vaping products. However, these large containers comprise only a modest proportion of the market. Most vaping products will experience only limited price increases under the new tax. A concern for the public health community is that vaping products that are most used by youth are subject to the lowest tax burden.

South Africa does not need a new epidemic of addiction. The excise tax on vaping products will go some way to reduce the demand for these products. Unfortunately, there are flaws in the current tax system. We hope that National Treasury will address these in future Budgets.

• Nicole Vellios: Senior Research Officer, University of Cape Town

• Corne van Walbeek: Professor of Economics and Director of the Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products, University of Cape Town

This article was published by The Conversation.

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