Cigarette ban will ease pressure on health system, help social distancing, say experts
The ban on cigarettes sales has slowed the spread of Covid-19 and will ease pressure on the health system, a panel of experts found.
A study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa (HSRC) found that while illicit cigarettes continued to be sold, a majority of smokers had no access to them, leading to a number of gains against the pandemic.
Results of the study were presented at a webinar hosted on Friday by the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Professor Mosa Moshabela, which looked at the national debate around smoking and Covid-19 and whether there was evidence to support the ban.
“The majority of smokers, 88%, were not able to buy cigarettes during lockdown, suggesting the ban was efficient in reducing cigarette access and use,” the study found.
Presenting the data collected over two weeks from smokers around the country, HRSC statistician Ronel Sewpaul said based on the research outcomes, the study found that cigarette buyers were in close physical contact with people outside their homes more often than non-smokers, suggesting less than optimal social distancing, a key component to avoiding catching the virus.
“Those who were able to buy cigarettes during the ban had a significantly higher chance of coming into contact with people outside their homes at 26% than 10% of those who did not.
“Those who continue to buy cigarettes also came into contact with at least 10 people outside their home compared to those who did not,” Sewpaul said.
Given that smokers experience more serious Covid-19 outcomes than non-smokers, Sewpaul said SA needs to be aware of the serious risks to which smoking exposes them should they contract the virus.
“If only 1% of the eight million smokers were to contract the virus, 80,000 smokers will be affected countrywide.
“It is estimated 5% of the Covid-19 infected smokers would require admission to ICU. This would translate to about 4,000 people needing ICU hospital beds and ventilators across the country. Under current calculations, this would exceed the availability of ventilators and place health workers at risk,” she said.
Other risks associated with continuing to buy cigarettes and smoking during the ban was exposing family members to secondary smoke in a period when they needed optimal lung performance.
Smokers who had access to buying cigarettes were also found to be in the majority of those who bought alcohol, another banned substance.
“It also more prevalent to those who bought alcohol and drank it with friends,” Sewpaul said.
The majority of smokers who broke the law, according to the study, are between the ages of 18 and 24 (13%) compared to 70+ years (8%).
Sewpaul said the study outcomes showed that allowing smoking during this period would be creating an environment conducive to less social distancing and likely to overwhelm the health system.
Professor Yusuf Saloojee of the National Council Against Smoking South Africa said the addiction argument was also not strong enough to put pressure on government to allow the sale of cigarettes during the pandemic.
“Some people are addicted to gambling. Are we then going to ask the government to open casinos? Smokers are likely to have severe symptoms which will overwhelm our health system,” he said.
Salojee encouraged smokers to rather use the cigarette ban period to quit, while emphasising it was possible to overcome the challenges of addiction.
“There is evidence that stopping smoking has immediate benefits.
Salojee said the continued ban on the sale of cigarettes also had better long term advantages for the economy than the sale of cigarettes.
“We spend more money on treating smokers and lost productivity due to illness as a result of smoking in this country than we make from taxing tobacco,” he said.