New dashboard sets the record straight about smoking in SA

01 June 2021 - 08:00
SA has a high cigarette prevalence with 19% of adults smoking.
SA has a high cigarette prevalence with 19% of adults smoking.


South Africans, researchers and policymakers wanting information on tobacco-use trends can now access this vital data in real time after the launch on an online tobacco control dashboard which is the first in Africa.

Launched by deputy health minister Joe Phaahla on Monday to mark World No Tobacco Day, the SA Tobacco Control Data initiative aims to help South Africans understand data needs and gaps, and provide reliable information on tobacco control measures and usage.

Phaahla said the initiative is the answer to the continued need for reliable data to inform policy. It is the brainchild of Development Gateway, an international NGO that provides technical advisory services to governments and organisations, and the University of Cape Town-based Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products.

The dashboard shows SA has a high cigarette prevalence with 19% of adults smoking. At least 34% of adult men smoke, compared with about 7% of women. Tobacco use costs the economy R42bn every year — equating to annual salaries for 215,000 teachers.

It also shows more than one million South Africans regularly smoked e-cigarettes in 2018.

The sale of e-cigarettes has been banned in 41 countries, including four African nations . Research has shown e-cigarette users in SA are less likely to quit smoking cigarettes in the long term. This finding directly opposes claims made by the tobacco industry.

“The initiative aims to understand the data needs and gaps specific to SA, identify reliable data, and develop websites that enable policymakers to use essential data more effectively to inform policy in six African countries, including SA,” said Megan Lille of the Research Unit of Economics of Excisable Products.

“It equips decisionmakers with up-to-date evidence to promote tobacco control and public health.”

According to experts, the tobacco industry remains the main cause of the global tobacco epidemic and the main obstacle to progress in reducing use.

“Strong and persistent government action is needed to protect current and future generations from the devastating consequences of tobacco use,” said Lille. 

Phaahla said for the country to achieve the highest impact in its tobacco control measures, it needed to use evidence-based policies.

“Designing and implementing these policies requires rich and trustworthy data. We believe the initiative will serve as an important source of reliable information that will aid SA’s tobacco control efforts, and it is fitting we are celebrating its launch on this World No Tobacco Day.”

Speaking at the online launch of the initiative, Phaahla said the debate on tobacco use is gaining momentum. He said the health department  is moving on with the legislative process.

“The country is battling to reduce Covid-19 deaths, and working hard to flatten the curve of the epidemic. The relationship between Covid-19 and smoking cannot be ignored as both affect the lungs. As a collective, we care about the health of South Africans. I am grateful to see growth in the tobacco control partnership and commitment in touching others’ lives.”

Health organisations forming part of the #protectournext partnership, including the National Council Against Smoking, the Cancer Association of SA, the SA Medical Research Council  (SAMRC) and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of SA, added their support to the global “Commit to Quit” campaign, a year-long drive with a goal of supporting more than 100-million tobacco users trying to quit tobacco use permanently.

Dr Sharon Nyatsanza of the National Council Against Smoking said: “Smoking is the single most preventable cause of death in the world. It has never been more crucial to prevent young people from using any tobacco products, including cigarettes and e-cigarettes, and to motivate smokers to quit. Mounting evidence suggests tobacco users have a significantly higher chance of developing severe Covid-19 complications compared to non-smokers.  The pandemic should serve as a wake-up call to make our lungs healthier now and for the future.” 

“As a partnership of public health organisations, we are steadfast in driving awareness of the dangers of tobacco and united in our support for the new Control of Tobacco and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill to be passed as soon as possible,” she said.

The amendments in the new bill include:

  • regulating electronic cigarettes as tobacco products;
  • 100% smoke-free public places;
  • standardised plain cigarette packaging with graphic health warnings;
  • better control of advertising at point of sale;
  • the removal of cigarettes from vending machines. 

Dr Catherine Egbe, specialist scientist at the SAMRC’s alcohol, tobacco and other drugs research unit, said the bill will make it easier for South Africans to choose smoke-free lives, regulate e-cigarettes and decrease the impact of second-hand smoke on most of the population, who are non-smokers.

“We all need to support our right to a smoke-free environment and good health, encouraging smokers to quit, regulating e-cigarettes and ensuring our youth are protected from a lifelong addiction to nicotine.”