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'I've been to places I shouldn't go to get my cigarette fix': desperate smoker

15 May 2020 - 07:59 By Naledi Shange
One smoker has penned a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa calling on him to lift the ban on cigarette sales.
One smoker has penned a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa calling on him to lift the ban on cigarette sales.
Image: 123RF/Stefano Carnevali

A lifelong smoker has penned a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, pleading with him to lift the ban on the sale and distribution of cigarettes and tobacco products.

The letter was also shared with TimesLIVE.

In it, the 46-year-old said the ban was “killing more South Africans than the virus”, referring to the emotional suffering that smokers had reportedly suffered.

“I suffer from anxiety, withdrawal symptoms and depression because I don't have money for food and now government is forcing us to pay R700 plus on the black market for cigarettes. I am an honest, law-abiding citizen but feel like a criminal because I have to drive into places where I would never normally go just to get cigarettes,” the woman said. 

Co-operative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had explained that one of the reasons why cigarettes remained banned was because the way cigarettes were often shared among smokers was said to undermine social distancing and promote the spread of Covid-19, rather than combating it.

But this smoker argued that the unavailability of cigarettes forced smokers to share cigarettes and compromise their safety.

“Most people now share a cigarette because they are so hard to come by, so how does this make sense, our government,” she said, adding that millions were now searching for illicit cigarettes.

Quitting the habit, especially with no professional assistance, was not easy, she said.

“We are human. We have rights, don't we? We know what the risks of smoking are. [It] must be our choice if we want to quit!” she added.

She argued there was no logic in banning cigarettes because consuming food also required touching one's mouth, just like cigarettes.

“Eating chips and apples and almost anything must then also be banned because your hand touches your mouth while eating. This ban on cigarettes does not make any sense,” she said.

Meanwhile, a group of smokers, who have joined the #Smokers Against Lockdown Cigarette Ban – South Africa group on Facebook, have started a petition calling on the government to lift the ban.

The group was started shortly after the government announced a lift on the cigarette ban only to make a U-turn, saying it was not yet feasible to allow the sale of cigarettes.

Founder of the Facebook group, Bianca Kohn, said the banning of cigarettes was detrimental, with smokers undergoing withdrawal symptoms and suffering depression during this period of isolation.

“Half of my group has turned into a therapy counselling group with 70% of our members dealing with depression and suicidal red flags for our therapists and counsellors,” Kohn said in an e-mail to TimesLIVE.

“When I created this group, I did not take into consideration the impact that this will have on everyone on an emotional, mental and psychological aspect. We have people crying to us in tears, pouring their absolute hearts out. Their cries of help echo in my head while they suffer the sudden withdrawal without having had time to prepare themselves. This is absolute tragic,” she said.

They were preparing to take their fight to court.

By Thursday, Kohn said they had collected more than 900 signatures for the petition. Another petition calling for the ban to be lifted has so far garnered 523,377 signatories.

Kohn said the government had not properly considered the consequences of banning cigarettes.

“They did not take into consideration the mental and psychological health that will be effected among millions of smokers. Doctors are warning that one cannot just stop, especially if you are old. It can cause even further health complications,” she said.

But some experts say the ban of cigarettes has aided in keeping coronavirus infections in SA at bay.

A study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa (HSRC) found that while illicit cigarettes continued to be sold, most smokers had no access to them, leading to a number of gains against the pandemic.