Cigarette ban: High Court still ‘applying its mind’, studying 6 000 pages

Still no word from the High Court as another legal challenge, tabled by a giant in the tobacco industry, looms.

The future of South Africa’s controversial cigarette ban is still being deliberated by the North Gauteng High Court, which heard arguments from applicants and respondents on Wednesday 10 June.

South Africans were glued to their screens on Wednesday night, as President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation on important matters pertaining to COVID-19 and the national lockdown. Previous briefings, which followed government’s initial lockdown proclamation in late March, have been met with fierce public criticism; Ramaphosa’s address on Wednesday 17 June, which allowed for the further relaxation of regulations, was, however, welcomed by business owners.

While hairdressers, beauty salons, hotels, cinemas and even casinos ready for their return to the economy, South African smokers still await clarity on the hotly-debated tobacco ban.

Cigarette ban has South Africans fired up

Since lockdown was first initiated on 26 March, Cooperative Governance Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in her role as chair of the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC), has remained resolute in maintaining government’s prohibition of tobacco products. Almost three months have passed since the ban was promulgated within the Disaster Management Act and while other regulations have been eased — including the sale and purchase of alcohol, which has come with its own share of problems — cigarette sales remain firmly in control of the burgeoning black market.

The tobacco ban is estimated to have cost government in excess of R35 million a day in lost excise duties. Despite Dlamini-Zuma’s primary argument, which claims that the ban has forced most smokers to quit the habit, recent studies show that the majority of smokers have not gone cold turkey but have, instead, turned to purchasing illicit cigarettes at massively over-inflated prices.

Arguably the most contentious lockdown regulation, the prolonged cigarette ban has been condemned by smokers, tobacco industry stakeholders and tax watchdogs alike. The latter argue that government’s continued prohibition of tobacco has only served to enrich the underworld and fortify the country’s criminal economy.

Dlamini-Zuma’s primary argument to uphold tobacco ban

The Fair-Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) has spearheaded the fight against government’s cigarette ban, taking both President Ramaphosa and Minister Dlamini-Zuma, listed as primary respondents, to the High Court.

Fita Chairperson Sinenhlanhla Mnguni has argued that the government’s ban has not been based on logic and would not withstand the test of rationality before the judicial system. Dlamini-Zuma has countered with evidence provided by medical researchers which claims that smokers are more likely to suffer severe coronavirus symptoms and, as such, would place an excessive burden on the country’s healthcare system.

A full sitting of North Gauteng High Court judges reserved judgement in the matter and, since then, the uneasy silence, which has dominated the week, has left smokers on edge.

Cigarette ban: When will the court announce its decision?

After debunking fake news that the court judgement had been made in its favour, Fita pleaded for patience from anxious supporters. Releasing a statement which coincided with Ramaphosa’s Wednesday-night address, Fita noted:

“We understand the frustrations of the many people who have supported us during our challenging of the cigarette ban in relation to judgment in this matter.

Let us all be mindful of the fact that the record in this matter is approximately 6 000 pages long and the court has to apply its mind taking this and many other factors into consideration.”

Fita further dismissed allegations that the verdict’s delay was connected to some form of collusion with government. Ostensibly a knock-on effect from one of the first legal challenges aimed at overturning government’s tobacco ban lodged by British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA) which later withdrew its case after consulting with government. BATSA has, since, reinstituted legal proceedings which are due to be heard in court on 22 June.

Fita explained that its confidence in the legal argument to overturn the cigarette ban remained unshaken and that no underhand dealing with government would be considered; saying:

“We further wish to dismiss any allegations that we are involved in ANY discussions whatsoever with government in relation to this matter, and in fact we look forward to receiving judgment.”

Fita ended its statement by vowing to update the public as soon as it received word from the court.  There is no indication of when the judgement will be delivered.

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