Tobacco leaf farming is one of the biggest contributors to South Africa’s economy. But thanks to a booming illicit industry, “destructive” legislation and a worldwide health campaign to clamp down on smoking, the multibillion Rand industry is on its last legs.
Currently, there are only about 10 black tobacco farmers left in the country, a huge drop from almost 300 farmers a few years back.
Now, a new tobacco law the government wants to pass, threatens to wipe out the entire tobacco industry.
The proposed Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill aims to regulate the sale and advertising of tobacco products and electronic delivery systems like vapers.
It also aims to regulate the packaging and appearance of products, calling for “plain packaging”.
Govt. is getting carried away
Mpumalanga tobacco farmer Shadrack Sibisi lives in dread. He is concerned that the new law will ultimately kill the industry. “The bill’s intention is good but the application is way out of line,” Sibisi said.
“We support regulations that are realistic. We hope the government will one day change and the jobs that are being lost because of these regulations [will end].”
South African Tobacco Transformation Alliance (Satta) spokesperson Zacharia Motsumi admits that tobacco in Mzansi should be better regulated but warns that the government is crossing the line. “Any regulation needs to be realistic, workable, and based on economic and social reality to achieve the government’s objective of reducing consumption,” he said.
Motsumi said the government must go back to the drawing board and work on realistic, practical solutions that are mindful of the economic and social realities of the day. “Stop opening the economy to more and more mafia-type, tax-dodging criminal networks,” Motsumi said.
‘Gogo could go to jail’
The value chain is a very important source of income for many families and communities in South Africa. Tobacco leaf farms provide jobs and stable income to almost 7 000 farmers, 400 to 600 people in the processing industry and 3 354 people in the manufacturing sector.
There are also traders and sellers. “The proposal to ban the display of products at the retail level shows that the department has no clue what the market looks like,” Motsumi said.
“More than 80% of all cigarettes are sold in the informal sector. So, thousands of small retailers, spaza shops, street vendors, and table sellers will be criminalised as the basis of their business is to display their product.”
The bill will make way for black-market traders, illicit products, and criminal networks, he added. As a result, tax revenue from legal tobacco product sales will ultimately shrink to close to zero, Motsumi warned.
Consumers are not safe either. Smoking around children could land you in jail for six months and three months if you smoke in your own home when a non-smoker is around.
How the future looks
CEO of the South African Tobacco Alliance Tobela Tapula paints a bleak picture. He fears most tobacco manufacturers will leave the South African tobacco market.
“However, that doesn’t mean the consumption of products will decline, smokers will buy illicit tobacco products,” he said, “This will result in loss of sales and job losses.”
If the proposed Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill is passed, demand for tobacco leaves will drop and farmers, especially black growers, will lose the economic benefits of the industry, Tapula added.
While a nationwide campaign against the bill is running, the Portfolio Committee on Health has opened the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill for public comment.
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