South Africa’s Tobacco Bill May be in Violation of Human Rights

The founder of the advocacy organization Vaping Saved My Life (VSML), Kurt Yeo, said that the Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill will rob smokers of the opportunity of having access to “one of the most effective tools in reducing harm and achieving smoking cessation.”

The Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill, has been in the works since 2018 and was announced by Deputy Health Minister Joe Phaahla in 2020. It would prohibit smoking in public spaces and set in place stricter vape regulations, that include restrictions on the use, marketing, and sales of certain tobacco products. Moreover, it would set in place a provision allowing the government to implement a “100% public cigarette ban.”

Yeo highlights that the Bill of Rights which is part of South Africa’s constitution, states that every South African has the right to equality, access information, proper healthcare, and the right to life. And the 12.7 million South Africans who consume nicotine are also privy to these rights, adds Yeo.

The bill supposedly seeks to “reduce the incidence of tobacco-related illness, disability and death”, however explains the group founder, given the harsh restrictions it imposes on safer nicotine alternatives, it will do the opposite of what it aims. Moreover, the bill goes against the right to access information by making it illegal for manufacturers of vaping products to claim that the products are less harmful than combustible tobacco products, which in fact they are.

Consumers should be consulted
To this effect, the former smoker and VSML founder wrote an open letter in response to several press statements, interviews and blog posts where he explained that the full context was not presented regarding the vaping discussion. He added that stakeholders including consumers were not given an opportunity to consult on the changes made before it was submitted to cabinet for approval.

Meanwhile shortly after, South Africa’s National Treasury published a discussion paper outlining a plan for a tax on electronic nicotine and non-nicotine delivery systems (ENDS). Interviewed by Medical Brief, the Treasury’s Chief Director for Economic Tax Analysis, Chris Axelson, said that a flat tax rate on electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) – based on the amount of liquid they contain –has been agreed upon in principle. This will be regardless of whether the ENDS contains nicotine or a non-nicotine liquid. While having a nicotine content baseline was an attractive policy idea, “it just gets incredibly complicated to enforce”.

The document was open for comment until the 25th of January, and it proposed a tax on both devices and e-liquids/capsules, which would allow for the products to be taxed relative to their nicotine content level.

Prohibition has never worked
In other news, a recent study on BMJ looked into how the 2020 temporary ban on tobacco and vaping products affected the South African market. (In March 2020, South African authorities banned the sales of tobacco products and electronic devices as part of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

To analyze how smokers responded to this ban and how the industry was impacted as result, the researchers distributed an online questionnaire which was completed by 23,631. The participants answered questions related to their tobacco use behaviour before and during the ban.

The compiled responses indicated that about 9% of pre-lockdown smokers in the sample successfully quit smoking, while 93% of continuing smokers managed to purchase their preferred products despite the sales ban. The researchers also found that the average prices of tobacco and nicotine products increased by 250% relative to pre-lockdown prices, yet most of the participants kept purchasing the products through informal channels.

This finding- consumers resorting to the black market, is consistently observed in places where any popular products are heavily regulated. To this effect, tobacco harm reduction experts worldwide keep insisting that tobacco prohibition does not work, regulating sensibly does.