Taxing of EVPs and the Proposed Tobacco Bill will be Counterproductive to Tobacco Harm Reduction

In February 2020, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced that “Electronic cigarettes, or so-called vapes, will be taxed from 2021”. Recently, the Department of Health announced that it plans to send the Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Nicotine Systems Bill (COTPENDS) to Cabinet for approval. The COTPENDS intends to introduce measures to control Electronic Vapour Products (EVPs), with a view of curbing their increasing popularity.

The intended vaping tax and the COTPENDS Bill would represent a double blow to the South African vaping industry, vapers and those seeking less harmful alternatives to smoking. It is also worth noting that the vaping industry in South Africa comprises of mainly Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs), who will be severely affected by the vaping tax and COTPENDS. Inevitably, some of them will be forced out of business, taking with them valuable jobs which are currently hard to come by in the depressed South African economy.

The Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA) is in support of the Department of Health’s efforts to reduce smoking rates in South Africa. However, we disagree with the measures the Department is taking to achieve its goals. Though nicotine is an addictive stimulant, it does not cause the harm resulting in cancers and lung diseases. Most people smoke cigarettes for the nicotine but get diseases or die from the tar that results from combustion. EVPs on the other hand, have been found to be a less harmful alternative for people to consume nicotine.,. The Royal College of Physicians and Public Health England have proven that vaping is 95% less harmful than combustible cigarettes.

Despite many decades of strict tobacco control policies, smoking rates have not decreased significantly. That is until the entrance of EVPs, which has seen smoking rates decrease in countries such as the United Kingdom (UK) and New Zealand, largely due to the embracing and promotion of EVPs as part of tobacco harm reduction. The examples of the UK and New Zealand have shown that there is a need for governments and health professionals to proactively encourage smokers to switch from combustible cigarettes to less harmful alternatives such as electronic vapour products (EVPs).

By its very nature, tobacco harm reduction does not claim that there is no harm associated with EVPs. It simply recognises that moving away from smoking is one of the most difficult decisions that any human being can ever make, due to the addictive properties of nicotine in cigarettes. It moves from the premise that if smokers are to be encouraged to find an alternative from smoking, it is sensible that they are provided with less harmful alternatives that can support their journey towards quitting smoking.

A tax on EVPs and the COTPENDS will not assist the Department of Health achieve its goal of decreasing smoking rates in South Africa. However, an acknowledgement and recognition of the science-based evidence that points to less harmful products that can help prevent smokers out of  combustible smoking would be a good start for the Department towards achieving its goals.