Informal traders join call for unbanning of cigarette sales
The South African Informal Traders Alliance (Saita) and a tobacconist have warned that the ban on the sale of cigarettes is fuelling illicit trade.
The organisations are calling on the government to "urgently" lift the ban on the sale of tobacco.
“We can see the ban is not stopping people from smoking, but instead of buying cigarettes from their usual informal traders, they are buying illicit products from criminals. In other words, our government is taking food from the mouths of hard-working traders and giving it to crooks," said Rosheda Muller, Saita's president.
Saita represents informal traders, hawkers, spaza shop owners and home-based operators in all provinces.
“The nature of our market is that many of our members sell single cigarettes, usually costing about R1 for a single. Every box sold by the illicit trade is another R20 our members are losing out on - and right now, even R20 can make a difference to the lives of our members, who are living hand to mouth,” said Muller.
While agreeing that the Covid-19 pandemic was a crisis and tough measures had to be taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus, she said there was no reason for a ban on tobacco.
“When our president asked us to make the ultimate sacrifice in the best interests of the country and go into lockdown eight weeks ago, we listened - despite knowing the devastating impact it would have on our lives and livelihoods. We listened to our leaders because they shared with us the evidence and experience of other countries, and explained why the lockdown was important.”
While there was no scientific evidence that tobacco contributes to the spread of Covid-19, she said there was proof that the ban had led to a huge increase in the illicit cigarette trade, “which is being run by criminals and gangs, who make our communities more dangerous”.
“There is also clear evidence that our members are losing business and income from the ban. Our members are losing their faith and trust in the government,” said Muller.
Warren Dreyer of JJ Cale Tobacconists said the future of his stores and that of his staff hung in the balance as a result of the ban on the sale of cigarettes.
Dreyer owns 15 specialist tobacco stores across the country and employs 121 staff.
He said a recent survey conducted by the University of Cape Town found that around 90% of respondents had purchased cigarettes during lockdown - but that 46% of those had migrated from their usual brand to the many illegal brands that exist in the market.
“It is perhaps the best time in history to be in the illegal cigarette trade. For them, business is booming. They are making money hand over fist and unfortunately none of that is going to the government,” said Dreyer.
“On the other end of the scale, the lockdown has been profoundly negative for legal small businesses that employ large numbers of people, pay their taxes and comply with the laws of the country.
“Government has enabled this shift - and it is deeply worrying, on every level.
“We urgently call on government to listen to the people whom they serve, but also to their own ministerial advisors and experts, who are calling for a sensible lifting of the ban.
“We are the only country in the world that has banned the sale of tobacco products, and it is causing irreparable harm to legal business and the millions of employees that they sustain,” said Dreyer.