Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has once more defended government’s decision to extend the ban on the sale of tobacco products during the covid-19 lockdown ordered 69 days ago.
The state has now requested more time to defend its cigarette ban in court after two damning high court judgements declaring most of the other lockdown regulations as invalid, unconstitutional and even irrational.
In an interview with Sakina Kamwendo on SABC2’s Morning Live earlier today, an assertive Mkhize reiterated that the controversial decision was based on the health risks associated with smoking. He said, “We are not aware of any health benefits that come from tobacco smoking. We need to discourage smoking at all costs. We need to discourage it because it causes a lot of complications in the body.”
Meanwhile frustrations are mounting in the tobacco industry. The cigarette company British American Tobacco South Africa (Batsa) and the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) are both challenging the cigarette ban in court.
Fita has been vocal in their criticism of the decision, calling it “irrational” and “ill-advised”. After months of heated debate, the association will face government in the Pretoria High Court on 9 and 10 June 2020.
Last night, however, the same court expressed its dismay with some of the levels 4 and 3 regulations related to the limitations on exercise, funerals and the practicalities of distributing aid relief. Judge Norman Davis ordered the minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to review and amend the regulations within 14 days. The tobacco ban was, however, not included in Davis’ verdict as there are separate court cases pending.
During the Morning Live interview Mkhize said that the decision to ban tobacco products did not come immediately. It took weeks of deliberation to determine whether tobacco should be categorised as an “essential need”.
He said, “The question of whether or not we wanted to encourage smoking or not arose because lockdown rules provided for the people to go out for essential services. Most of the shops were closed except for essential services. Then the issue arose whether we could define cigarettes as essential services. Of course, it can’t be seen as essential services.”
Smoking is addictive, he added. “Nicotine addiction does not make it an essential service. It is just an unfortunate kind of development.”
The minister said that the “back and forth” between government and smokers was futile. Efforts should, according to him, instead be focused on flattening the curve of the novel coronavirus.
“I really want to focus us on the behavioural changes that are going to help us deal with covid-19 and not get dragged into an unending discussion about smoking as though we can at some point find an acceptable reason to show the benefits of smoking. I think we must focus on the main issue. The main issue is covid-19. Even the World Health Organisation has issued a statement to indicate some of the concerns around smoking.”