Johannesburg – Amid much gloating and self-congratulations, the Department of Health finally briefed the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health on the much-awaited Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill.
Coinciding with World No Tobacco Day on 31 May, the briefing was an opportunity for the government to reveal its grand design to tighten tobacco control legislation and unleash its surreptitious agenda on the vaping industry in South Africa.
As expected, government could not convincingly support its proposed regulation of vaping with scientific evidence, and instead relied on the blanket assertion that all vaping companies are targeting young people. There is a false narrative sustained by government and the anti-vaping lobby that all vaping companies are tobacco companies and, therefore, can’t be trusted. And this cannot be further from the truth.
Upfront, the vaping industry completely agrees with government that legislation should be adopted to control vaping in South Africa. It is an anomaly that a product so popular has taken so long to come under the government’s regulatory net. However, the industry is dismayed that government has, despite a growing volume of evidence to the contrary, persisted with its misguided efforts to tarnish vaping, ostensibly to protect young people from the harms of smoking.
Whilst the protection of young people is a legitimate objective that the vaping industry shares, we do not, for a moment, believe that what government has come up with is going to achieve its intended purpose. On the contrary, it is clear that government’s chosen path is going to make it very difficult for committed smokers to access less harmful alternatives to smoking. We define committed smokers as those smokers who have no desire to kick their nicotine addiction.
In our view, government’s position reflects a deep-seated failure of ideology and affinity for selective global solutions that do not consider the specificities of different countries. On the former, the failure of ideology is that government is committed to eradicating smoking, even though it does not have the tools and wherewithal to do so.
Government’s ban on legal tobacco and vaping sales in 2020 is proof enough. Fundamentally, it reflects a lack of agility in government policy thinking that does not admit to innovation to solve intractable problems.
It beggars belief that in 2023, South Africa does not have a tobacco harm reduction strategy, of which non-combustible alternatives should form the backbone. What should have been celebrated as a technological solution to the problem of smoking-related diseases, government has managed to demonise vaping to a point where many smokers, medical personnel, and caregivers believe it to be more harmful than smoking. Practising doctors are more likely to tell a smoker to chew nicotine gum, which has a high failure rate, rather than advise them to try vaping, which, according to the latest Cochrane Review, has a higher chance of facilitating exit from smoking than other nicotine replacement therapies, while being less harmful than smoking.
It was encouraging to see parliamentarians asking hard questions of the Department of Health during the briefing. Most prescient was a question for the department about the whereabouts of the report of its engagement with NEDLAC partners, in keeping with a commitment made by the Department to NEDLAC that it would table the Bill for consideration prior to tabling in Parliament. While fudging, the department effectively conceded that it had not met its commitment to consult with NEDLAC partners, which is a terrible indictment of government’s commitment to inclusive policymaking.
It was also encouraging to hear MPs ask the department about the Socio-Economic Impact Assessment conducted on the Bill. As has become a norm with this government, none of the parties affected by this Bill have been furnished with a copy of the Socio-Economic Impact Assessment. All that parties have seen is the substandard report produced in 2018, which was published along with the Bill when it was first released for public comment in May 2018.
For that matter, the final Bill tabled in Parliament was a radical departure from the one affected parties had last seen in 2018. Many changes were made to the final version, including a proposal to entrust the Minister with sweeping powers to institute various regulations without going through consultations, especially what the bill euphemistically calls ‘characterising flavours’, otherwise known simply as flavours. Given the mess of Covid-19 restrictions, only the brave would trust our health authorities with more power.
Many non-smokers regard complaints by our industry as nothing but an effort to protect businesses in our sector. This is partly true. However, we can be concerned for both the health of smokers and the income of businesses in our industry. The two concerns are not mutually exclusive.
Furthermore, calling on government to be sensible in making policy is not a peripheral matter. It is something that every South African should care about, even when they do not perceive themselves to be directly affected. Bad habits in tobacco control will be quickly replicated in other areas of the policy landscape. We can only hope that Parliament, unlike the Department of Health, will engage stakeholders in a meaningful and balanced manner and not treat the process as a box-ticking exercise. This should include sufficient time for concerned parties to make written submissions, for an inclusive process of Parliamentary hearings, and extensive public hearings across the country to afford ordinary South Africans the opportunity to understand the proposed measures and make their views known directly to the Portfolio Committee.