British American Tobacco (BAT) SA, the local division of the world’s second-largest cigarette producer, is heading to court to try to overturn the continued prohibition of the sale of tobacco products during South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown.
It has been illegal to sell cigarettes during the course of the lockdown which was imposed during the national state of disaster, in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The government has cited health reasons as part of the argument for the continued ban, even as the lockdown has been lifted incrementally.
This decision has, however, been described as irrational, especially as the sale of alcohol will be permitted when SA moves to a less strict version of the lockdown on Monday, and places of worship are allowed to open despite the infection risk for Covid-19 at gatherings.
The continued ban on the sale of cigarettes has been particularly controversial as the president had first announced that cigarettes would be sold under level 4 of the lockdown, but then backtracked barely a week later and before it could be implemented.
BAT SA said in a statement on Friday that it would commence with urgent legal proceedings to challenge the government’s decision to extend the ban on tobacco sales during level 3. The company, which has 78% of the market share of the legal cigarette trade in SA, said it would be supported in the court action by Japan Tobacco International, as well as groups and organisations representing the tobacco value chain across the country, including consumers, tobacco farmers and retailers.
BAT SA said it had made every effort to constructively engage with the government since the ban came into force, including making detailed submissions, along with other interested parties, to various ministers, as well as directly to the presidency. “To date, no formal response has been received from the government, and BAT SA has also not been included in any of the government’s consultation processes so far,” the company said.
“BAT SA has long argued that the banning of a legal product will have dire consequences, driving millions of smokers to the illicit market, robbing the government of much-needed excise tax contributions, undercutting tobacco control regulations, encouraging criminal behaviour and threatening thousands of jobs.”
The court application follows another court challenge to the ban by the Fair-trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita), representing smaller producers. That court challenge has not been heard yet.