Cigarettes are easily available under South Africa’s national COVID-19 lockdown, which means that not many local smokers have needed to quit.
Combine the easy accessibility of black market cigarettes with the much higher prices charged for these lower-quality products, and you will also get a significant increase in the number of people sharing cigarettes.
These are exactly the findings of the latest study by the Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products (REEP) at the University of Cape Town.
REEP found that 93% of South African smokers have continued to smoke despite the ban on the sale of tobacco products.
The study also found that the sharing of cigarettes among smokers increased to a staggering 430%. This activity carries with it a much higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
Problematically, less than half of those surveyed thought that a person can get COVID-19 from sharing a cigarette.
“On the matter of the risk of contracting COVID-19 from sharing a cigarette, less than a majority (48%) of respondents think that a person can get COVID-19 from sharing a cigarette,” the report said.
“Men (55%) are substantially more likely to believe that one can get COVID-19 from sharing a cigarette than women (43%).”
People who believed that you can get COVID-19 from sharing a cigarette still reported sharing cigarettes during lockdown, however.
Benefitting the illegal market
British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA) has published a statement in response to REEP’s findings, arguing that the ban on tobacco has only served to benefit illicit traders.
“The market has been completely taken over by illicit cigarette suppliers at the expense of law-abiding and tax compliant manufacturers, like BATSA, and the fiscus continues to lose R35 million every single day in taxes,” BATSA said.
“After 118 days of lockdown, the ban on tobacco products sales has now cost over R4 billion in excise taxes alone and substantial job losses.”
The company also cited the increased number of people sharing cigarettes and potentially exposing themselves to COVID-19 as a result of the ban.
“This is largely due to the high price of the illicit products which on average are 250% higher than the pre-lockdown price.”
BATSA head of external affairs Johnny Moloto said that at the moment, South Africa’s tobacco market is being run and dominated by illicit suppliers who are making billions of rand in illegal profits.
“These illicit suppliers are not, suddenly, going to become compliant and start obeying the law and paying taxes when the ban is, eventually, lifted,” Moloto said.
“They evaded taxes prior to the lockdown, they’ve made billions tax-free during the ban and they will evade taxes after the ban.”