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Cigarette lockdown ban: Big brands still suffering as smokers choose cheap

Taxman a big loser in the aftermath of the ban, according to study

18 February 2021 - 12:32 By TimesLIVE
The government lost taxes and enabled an illicit market, yet only 8% of smokers quit during the sales ban - and half of those who stopped smoking indicated they started again when the ban was lifted.
The government lost taxes and enabled an illicit market, yet only 8% of smokers quit during the sales ban - and half of those who stopped smoking indicated they started again when the ban was lifted.

The legal multinationals' market share of the sale of cigarettes went from 70% (pre-ban) to 33% (in ban) to 50% (post-ban), a survey shows.

The prohibition did not prevent smoking either: 85% of smokers kept smoking during the cigarette ban, only 8% quit and half of those who stopped smoking indicated they started smoking again once the ban was lifted.

This data is provided in the latest National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile survey (Nids-Cram).

Tobacco sales were prohibited between March 25 and August 17 as part of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

There were about 6.7 million adult smokers in SA before the start of the lockdown, the report estimates.

The average daily number of cigarettes smoked by smokers decreased from 7.9 cigarettes in 2017 to 6.5 cigarettes during the sales ban and up to 8.8 cigarettes after the ban.

Adjusted for inflation and expressed in constant November 2020 prices, the average price of cigarettes increased by nearly 200% between 2017 and the highest point it reached during the sales ban.

Total expenditure on cigarettes (equivalent to total gross turnover of the tobacco industry) changed from an annualised R32.1bn just before the ban to an annualised R72.9bn at the peak of the sales ban, and fell to R31.3bn once the prohibition was lifted.

The sales ban hurt the multinationals - British American Tobacco, Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco International - but greatly benefited the non-multinationals, of which the prominent companies are Gold Leaf Tobacco Corporation, Carnilinx, Best Tobacco Company and Amalgamated Tobacco Company.

“Whereas the multinationals had an estimated market share of more than 70% pre-lockdown, this decreased to 33% during the sales ban. After the sales ban was lifted, the market share of the multinationals recovered to just more than 50%,” the report said. 

“Very sharp increases in the retail prices - more than 400% at the peak of the sales ban - together with a 70% increase in sales volumes, meant that the total estimated gross turnover of the non-multinationals increased very sharply during the sales ban.

“Even after the lifting of the ban, the total gross turnover of this group is probably more than double what it was before the ban.”

The National Treasury budgeted that R15bn would be collected from tobacco excise taxes in the 2020/21 financial year. The 20-week sales ban means the government lost about R5.8bn during this period.

“There are no angels in the industry. All tobacco companies, both the multinationals and the locally based companies, have been accused and/or found guilty of various kinds of wrongdoing,” said the report.

“The non-multinationals, which more than the multinationals have previously been found to sell cigarettes at prices at which it is impossible for the full tax to have been paid, have benefited disproportionately from the ban.

“Because they already had well-established distribution channels into the illicit market before the ban, it seems likely that the sales ban has entrenched that market.”

The researchers estimate that if there is one tobacco-related death for every million cigarettes smoked, the decrease in the quantity of cigarettes smoked during the 20 weeks of the sales ban is likely to have prevented about 2,300 future premature tobacco-related deaths.

A large increase in the excise tax at the start of the lockdown would probably have yielded a similar outcome, in terms of a reduction in cigarette use and a decrease in smoking prevalence, as the sales ban, said the report. “However, it would probably have been less disruptive and yielded more revenue for government.

“That the already well-established illicit market became more entrenched during the sales ban has complicated the task, for Sars and other law enforcement agencies, of reducing the illicit market.”

Clamping down should be a national priority, said the report.