South Africa: the complex politics impeding tobacco control progress

 

Yussuf Saloojee

National Council Against Smoking

South Africa has long been a front runner in tobacco control in Africa. It was an early adopter of comprehensive legislation, which resulted in a 40% drop in cigarette smoking prevalence, and, in turn, between 1997 and 2010, in declines in mortality from lung and oesophageal cancer, stroke, heart and respiratory disease.

Recently, however, legislative progress has stalled. While other African countries have introduced 100% smoke-free laws, picture-based health warnings, and ratified the WHO FCTC Protocol Against Illicit Trade, South Africa has not.

To be sure, the National Department of Health has drafted a law to introduce plain packaging, ban indoor smoking, remove point-of-sale advertising, regulate alternative nicotine delivery products, etc., but the law is stuck within government.

The impasse though is not confined to tobacco control.  Legislation to ban alcohol advertising – reportedly approved by cabinet in 2013 – and plans to stop junk food advertising to children announced in 2014, have also not seen the light of day.

The analysis in the March 2018 issue of Tobacco Control of the reasons for the gridlock in South African tobacco control is superficial. The author fails to recognise or acknowledge the stranglehold money has on politics in the country. This not only threatens public health, but state institutions and democracy itself. The solution is not, as suggested, to provide funding for the author’s organisation.

Since 2009, there has been a shift in the “influencers” on government.  Public interest has waned as corporate influence has waxed.  The recent history of the South African Revenue Services (SARS) illustrates this.

Behind the money to be made from selling cheap, illegal cigarettes hides a more sinister agenda of corruption, money-laundering and state capture. In November 2013, SARS announced that it wanted 15 tobacco manufacturers and importers, including British American Tobacco (BAT), to be prosecuted for tax evasion and illicit trading. At stake was R12 billion (US$1 billion) in unpaid taxes.

About 18-months later, the acting head of SARS, its chief of enforcement, and 55 other officials, found themselves unemployed.  A result of an aggressive campaign against SARS. Not incidentally, the prosecutions for illicit trading evaporated.

SARS investigations into the illicit tobacco trade exposed extensive penetration of law enforcement agencies by the Tobacco Institute of South Africa (TISA) and BAT.

TISA – supported by BAT – allegedly spent about R50-million a year to run an intelligence network to fight the illicit trade but which ended up spying on competitors. The money gave TISA and BAT a seat on the official Illicit Tobacco Task Team, which includes representatives from the State Security Agency, South African Police, and National Prosecuting Authority.

Critics say its presence on the Task Team allows BAT access to confidential state intelligence, and the ability to drive the law enforcement agenda to target its smaller competitors.

The manufacturers also hijacked the problem of tobacco smuggling for policy gain, promoting misperceptions of the size of the trade, its costs to the economy, its causes, and its own role.  This put pressure on government not to increase tobacco excise taxes, and also to delay tobacco control laws.  A knee-jerk industry response to any tobacco control measure is to claim that it will increase crime.

The tobacco industry has successfully passed off self-interest as public interest. Recognising and combatting this corrupting influence through implementation of Article 5.3 of the FCTC is the essential challenge.