South Africa’s Controversial Tobacco Bill

The "Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill" aims to “reduce the incidence of tobacco-related illness, disability and death”, however given the harsh restrictions it imposes on safer nicotine alternatives, it will do the exact opposite of what it aims to do.

South Arica’s controversial “Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill“, has ignited significant public backlash due to its proposed prohibitions, price hikes, and harsh penalties. The bill aims to ban the display of tobacco and vape products in retail settings, including in specialty tobacco stores. It brings about substantial price increases for cigarettes, as well as for safer nicotine alternatives and sets a new sin tax on all nicotine products.

Tobacco harm reduction (THR) experts have incessantly argued that the bill unfairly lumps electronic delivery systems, including vapes, with traditional tobacco, hindering harm reduction efforts. Vape advocates, such as Tshepo Ranko and Dr. Kgosi Letlape, express concerns over this approach, emphasizing the ethical responsibility to provide information on harm reduction products to smokers seeking safer alternatives. As the president of the African Harm Reduction Alliance, Letlape worries that the bill marginalizes nicotine users, including those who have chosen vaping as a safer alternative to cigarettes.

Similarly, but perhaps not surprisingly, a survey involving tobacconists and small businesses across South Africa has revealed an overwhelming opposition to the proposed changes. Of the 1,769 stores surveyed, with a total of 3,194 employees, 98% of respondents from small operations strongly disagree with the display ban. Three-quarters of respondents feel that the bill criminalizes legal businesses. Others have highlighted that bans are ineffective, a point which has been proven by the negative impact the local tobacco ban set during COVID-19 has had.

For many, the most concerning aspects of the bill are the severe penalties it proposes, such as an imprisonment of ten years. This penalty applies not only to extreme cases but also to individuals caught displaying a single packet of cigarettes over the counter. The public response on social media has indicated widespread anger at the perceived inhumanity of such severe punishments for minor offenses. If enacted, the bill could also lead to significant social and economic consequences, with potential implications for small businesses and subsequently the broader public.

The importance of differentiating between cigarettes and their safer alternatives
In contrast, the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Public Health (SANT) has acknowledged the potential of vaping in aiding smoking cessation in its report on non-communicable diseases. Director of the World Vapers’ Alliance (WVA), commended the EU committee’s recognition of vaping as a means to reduce smoking-related illnesses, emphasizing its role in supporting public health goals and assisting smokers in quitting.

The WVA advocates for the integration of supportive measures for harm reduction strategies like vaping into the EU’s public health policies. The group has consistently stressed that thoughtful regulations should be crafted to preserve vaping as a viable option for those wanting to quit smoking, given that it was proven effective at reducing smoking rates and therefore reducing non-communicable diseases.