Health or jobs: this is the dichotomy of public sentiment on the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill, which will, among other things, ban smoking in many public spaces and punish contraventions with fines and imprisonment.
The bill, which was introduced last year, "seeks to strengthen public health protection measures, align the South African tobacco control law with the World Health Organisation Framework Convention and to repeal the Tobacco Control Act of 1993", according to the bill's memorandum.
Among the bill's provisions are:
- indoor public places and certain outdoor areas that will be designated 100 percent smoke-free;
- a ban on the sale of cigarettes through vending machines;
- plain packaging with graphic health warnings and pictorials;
- ban on display at point-of-sale; and
- the regulation and control of electronic nicotine delivery systems and non-nicotine delivery systems.
The bill prohibits smoking in an enclosed public place, enclosed workplace, or on public transport and any space that is within a prescribed distance from an operable window or ventilation inlet of an entrance or exit of a place where smoking is prohibited.
It also prohibits smoking in any motor vehicle or a private enclosed space when a non-smoker or a child is present.
Smoking will also be prohibited in an enclosed common area of a multi-unit residence and a private dwelling in a multi-unit residence "if smoking interferes unreasonably with the enjoyment of other persons lawfully on the premises" and private dwellings that are used for any commercial childcare activity, child stay, schooling, tutoring, domestic employment or otherwise as a workplace.
Furthermore, the bill, if enacted, would allow the health minister to prohibit smoking in "any prescribed outdoor public place or workplace, or such portion of an outdoor public place or workplace as may be prescribed, where smoking may pose a health, fire or other hazard or such other place where the minister considers it appropriate to prohibit smoking in order [to] reduce or prevent the public’s exposure to smoking".
Contraventions of these prohibitions, and the others in the bill, are punishable by fines or imprisonment, or both. For most contraventions, the maximum prison sentence is three months, but for offences related to selling tobacco products to children, the longest is 20 years.
As the bill wound its way through the parliamentary process, groups such as the South African Medical Research Centre (SAMRC), the Cancer Association of South Africa (Cansa) and organisations opposed to smoking, expressed their support due to the positive impact on public health, while others, like the tobacco industry and Tax Justice SA, complain that it will cost jobs and let the illicit tobacco trade run rampant.
Lorraine Govender, Cansa's national manager for health promotion, said in a statement earlier this year that the bill would help to free South Africa from the crippling effects of non-communicable diseases, including cancer.
"We have long campaigned for better measures that can free South Africa from the crippling impact of non-communicable diseases, which are currently responsible for the deaths of 50.9% of South Africans. Tobacco use is a major risk factor and is currently estimated to cost South Africa R42-billion per year in treating illnesses and loss of productivity. We must take action to free our economy from further strain, and we look forward to stronger legislation that will better protect our rights to freedom and health," she said.
The SAHRC's first Global Adult Tobacco Survey conducted in South Africa, in 2021, showed high levels of tobacco use (29.4%) and second-hand smoke exposure in South Africa. The research also showed strong public support for regulations, with nine out of 10 adults supporting a ban on smoking in indoor workplaces and public places.
The survey's lead investigator and specialist scientist in the SAMRC's Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit, Dr Catherine Egbe, said: "A sick nation is a poor nation. Our communities want freedom from tobacco and the damage it causes to our health, our environment and our economy. The bill includes carefully designed measures to achieve this and we need it to be urgently passed into law, so we can move towards a tobacco-free, healthy nation."
News24 Business reported in July that British American Tobacco (BAT), the owner of Dunhill, Lucky Strike and e-cigarette group Vuse, warned that, if enacted, the bill would entrench the illicit trade of cigarettes in SA and potentially force its exit.
"If this bill is implemented in its current form, we estimate the legal industry will shrink further from the current 30% of the market. This is potentially the final straw for BAT's operations in South Africa," BAT SA's general manager Johnny Moloto said.
Tax Justice SA founder Yusuf Abramjee said in a statement last month that, if legislators were concerned about the country's prosperity and preventing organised crime kingpins from seizing control of another commercial sector, they would ditch the bill.
Adding his doubts that the bill would have an impact on overall cigarette consumption, he said, "Now the tobacco bill threatens to increase those losses by exacerbating the devastating impact of the unconstitutional sales ban that was imposed during lockdown. It will create even more business for the counterfeiters and smugglers who are flooding our country with tax-evading 'cheapies'."
The two divergent viewpoints were on display in the Portfolio Committee on Health's public hearings on the bill in Gauteng over the weekend.
At the meeting in Heidelberg on Friday, many participants raised concerns that the bill, in its current form, had the potential to devastate the economy of their district, which was anchored on the business of one tobacco producing company in the area, according to a statement from Parliament.
They also raised the concern that the bill would strengthen the illicit tobacco trade's hand.
Some participants against the bill argued that the consumption of tobacco products was not a problem.
"According to them, unemployment and lack of information are major reasons [for] the current high levels of consumption of tobacco products. They urged the government to rather focus on finding solutions to the problem of drugs and illicit tobacco products," reads the statement from Parliament.
At the meeting in Westonaria, on the West Rand, on Saturday, members of the public called for different regulations governing electronic delivery systems as they were of the view that similar regulations to those of tobacco products were unhelpful and deprived smokers of the less harmful alternative they could use to quit.
At the public meeting in Tshwane on Sunday, small-scale traders expressed the fear that the bill would criminalise them and their small businesses when all they were trying to do was to make a living. They cautioned that the closure of small businesses would plunge many families into destitution as they depended on the sale of tobacco products for their livelihood.
However, at these meetings, the bill also had its supporters, who argued that the regulation of tobacco products would protect non-smokers against exposure to second-hand smoke. They supported and welcomed the designation of smoke-free zones.
They also argued that plain packaging and banning the display of products at the point of sale would discourage compulsive consumption.
The meeting in Tshwane continued the committee's hearings in Gauteng.
It will head to KwaZulu-Natal in January.