In its delayed High Court affidavit the government claims medical evidence vindicates its lockdown ban on tobacco, despite “bizarrely strong” evidence in favour of nicotine in relation to COVID-19. But the real issue is that adults should be allowed to make their own informed decisions about a legal product, writes legal policy expert Martin van Staden in Business Day.
While government has been dogmatically against smoking long before the COVID-19 pandemic, its “calamitous” decision-making around the allowability of cigarette sales during the lockdown is taken up by Martin van Staden, chief adviser for legal policy on Bridge Africa’s board of advisers. Writing in Business Day, he says our strict lockdown regulations “curtail freedom of expression, so the government should lead by example and apply the same rigorous controls to its own advice”.
A ban on tobacco sales has extended into level three lockdown, with Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma recently announcing it would continue all the way down to level one. “That smoking isn’t exactly ideal for one’s health is a fact nobody – not even Big Tobacco – disputes. But this is wholly beside the point: adult consumers should be free to make informed decisions for themselves about a legal and already tightly regulated product.”
Van Staden notes the debate around smoking during the pandemic has now taken “an interesting turn”. Professor Francois Balloux, of University College London, claims there is “bizarrely strong” evidence that the nicotine taken up from smoking might be effective protection against COVID-19. Much of this is ascribed to the fact that smokers represent a disproportionately small percentage of all COVID-19 infected.
Researchers at the universities of New York and West Attica have concluded that smoking is not a risk factor for COVID-19 hospitalisation. The Norwegian Institute of Public Health has gone as far as removing smokers from the list of people at risk of serious illness from the disease.
Some claim nicotine might actually be beneficial in combating COVID-19. Neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux, from Paris’ Pasteur Institute, suggested this might be due to nicotine hindering the virus from entering certain cells in the body. The presence of nicotine might also be impeding the immune system’s over-reaction to COVID-19, which is itself harmful.
Says Van Staden: “Regardless of the eventual conclusions around smoking and COVID-19, it is not for the government to decide what risks people take in a free society. The government can provide us with information and warn against reckless behaviour that might endanger others, but it ought not to try to regiment society in accordance with the preferences of the political elite.”
In her delayed affidavit in the case before the Gauteng High Court (Pretoria) in the challenge to the cigarette ban by the Free Trade and Independent Tobacco Association (Fita), Dlamini-Zuma says additional medical literature has bolstered the government’s cigarette ban decision, and renders the first legal challenge to its rationality “clearly unsustainable”. A BusinessLIVE report says Dlamini-Zuma states that there is evidence that many smokers have quit as a result of the ban. This means that the government’s decision to impose it remains rational, she said.
While acknowledging that the ban may have resulted in economic loss, she said this needed to be weighed against the healthcare costs associated with treating smokers – with or without COVID-19. “It is therefore not the case that the state only incurs costs if tobacco sales are prohibited,’ Dlamini-Zuma noted in her affidavit. While stating that she never claimed that the medical literature she previously relied on to justify the cigarette ban was ‘absolutely conclusive”, the Minister remains adamant that “the available evidence does indicate that smokers are at a heightened risk of adverse COVID-19 outcomes”. “This, I submit, renders a prohibition of the sale of tobacco products a rational and necessary measure to protect the public.”
Full analysis in Business Day
Full BusinessLIVE report