President Cyril Ramaphosa has outlined measures to open South Africa’s economy and confirmed that the country will move to Level 4 lockdown. Among other relaxation of lockdown measures, this means that grocery stores and other retail outlets will now sell all items in their stores. This has resulted in the sale of a range of items previously listed as non-essential, including cigarettes.
Public Health Policy and Development Consultant Zanele Mthembu says, “While we believe it was a greatly beneficial decision to exclude cigarettes from the list of essential items during Level 5 of the lockdown, we understood that this ban would be temporary. We are focused on the long term protection of society from tobacco harm through strengthening overall tobacco control measures and legislation, which have a proven positive impact on health worldwide. We are calling on government to pass South Africa’s Control of Tobacco and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill, which has been in the pipeline for some time. Better tobacco control legislation would certainly be of great benefit in the time of a respiratory pandemic. We urge government to take rapid action on this.”
Mthembu says the complete sales ban has had the support of public health organisations and many citizens at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic due to the proven impact tobacco products have on respiratory and cardiovascular health; emerging studies showing that smoking can exacerbate the impact of COVID-19; the dangers of self-contamination through the very act of smoking as emphasised by the WHO and the increased risk of family exposure to second-hand smoke.
“We hope that many people have chosen to quit during this period, particularly considering the dangers of second-hand smoke to their families in lockdown,” she continues. “We encourage more smokers to use this moment to stop smoking to improve their health, and to reduce the likelihood of a severe illness should they contract COVID-19.”
“Tobacco is a well-known risk factor for most non-communicable diseases and exacerbates infectious diseases such as tuberculosis,” says Professor Pamela Naidoo of the Heart & Stroke Foundation. “COVID-19 still has many unknowns, but emerging studies show that tobacco users are at higher risk of severe complications. For this reason, it’s vital to protect the health of our nation.”
“We applaud those that have chosen to stop smoking during the lockdown, we encourage you to continue with your quit programme,” says Lorraine Govender of CANSA. “By not smoking, you also benefit the country and our economy. You can use the money you save to buy essential items like food. You can also be part of reducing the burden on the public healthcare system through reducing the amount of tobacco-related diseases. Show your support to immune-compromised patients, including cancer patients, by ensuring a tobacco-free environment. Show your solidarity to the health professionals who are working tirelessly to treat patients affected by COVID-19, by taking responsibility for your own health and remaining nicotine free.”
Dr. Catherine Egbe, Specialist Scientist: Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drug Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council says, “Since smoking causes respiratory illnesses like COPD, Emphysema, Asthma and chronic bronchitis, and Covid-19 is a respiratory disease, we want to remind people of this relationship and why it is important that they consider quitting.”
Dr. Sharon Nyatsanza of NCAS says there is a need for more support at primary healthcare level to help those who smoke to stop smoking, including the availability of nicotine replacement therapy which should be on the essential medicines list. “Now more than ever, we need government to accelerate support to address the health harm that tobacco causes, including access to resources to help smokers stop smoking and the adoption of the Tobacco Control Bill that will provide better protection for people from both smoking and vaping.”
Mthembu concludes, “Even without a Coronavirus pandemic engulfing the globe, it is harmful to smoke. As the President said, it’s now up to every individual. Stay home, say no to tobacco and stay safe South Africa. Let’s protect our next.”