The South African Medical Research Council says close to a million people quit smoking in South Africa during the hard lockdown. It says the government made the right decision to ban tobacco in the first months of the lockdown but could have done more to support people who wanted to quit smoking.

How people responded to the ban:

This came out at the virtual 51st Union Conference on Lung Health.

The World Health Organisation estimates that there are 1.3 billion smokers globally, approximately 7 million of them are in South Africa.

It says tobacco leads to about 8 million deaths each year linked to non-communicable diseases, induced by smoking.

Special Scientist on Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Research Unit at the South African Medical Research Council, Dr. Catherine Egbe, says the government was correct to take the precautionary approach to protect the South African community with pre-existing comorbidities.

“You will look at studies that were conducted early in the lockdown, at least one conducted at the University of Cape Town shows that 16% of smokers had quit. That would give you about 800 000 to a million smokers who had quit at the early stage of the lockdown, one would want to think that it was successful to a good extent.”

The Head of the Tobacco-Free Unit at the World Health Organisation, Doctor Vinayak Mohan Prasad, says 17 countries imposed restrictions on smoking and alcohol however had to relax these for economic reasons.

“And also the SA government had a similar challenge that the illicit trade was starting to overwhelm but also the tax collection was going down. You want revenue, get it but don’t lower taxes, increase it, make it difficult to … so there are benefits to getting less number of smokers. 13% or 16% decline in SA is a big win if we can sustain it. That’s going to save almost 20-25 million lives.”

The industry’s response 

Dr. Tom Hird from the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath says the tobacco industry did not sit back and watch its revenues drop.

“First is marketing. The industry has adapted the way they market to take advantage of the pandemic. The second key strategy is corporate social responsibility. We’ve also seen a focus on paying for PPE. We’ve also seen several tobacco companies broadly publicising their investment in companies that are trailing potential COVID-19 vaccines. We’ve seen them oppose efforts to label cigarettes non-essential in SA and elsewhere. In other countries, they’ve opposed and even taken legal action against government bans on tobacco sales again, including SA.”

The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association took the South African government to court:

Doctor Egbe says the local tobacco industry was using the issue of illicit tobacco trade to attack the government and since the unbanning of tobacco sales; the issue of illicit trade has died down.