When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the world’s governments immediately entered damage control mode and attempted to figure out what regulations they should put in place to protect their citizens.
Most governments responded to the pandemic by forcing most businesses to close temporarily and telling citizens to stay at home unless it was absolutely necessary to go out.
The South African government, however, responded to the pandemic in a most unusual way – by banning all tobacco and alcohol sales during the lockdown. Since the South African government subjects the vaping industry to the same rules and restrictions as the tobacco industry, the ban also applies to vaping products.
While many governments have allowed alcohol and tobacco sales to continue during COVID-19 lockdowns, South Africa is unusual in its decision to ban such sales. In addition, South Africa is the only nation known to have implemented a temporary ban on vaping product sales.
Tobacco and alcohol sales were expected to resume in South Africa on May 1st, but the ban has continued instead. Advocacy groups such as the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA) have petitioned the South African government to disassociate vaping products from tobacco products legally so sales of vaping products can resume.
At the time of writing, however, that request has been unsuccessful.
COVID-19 Lockdowns Have Created a Black Market for Nicotine in South Africa
As the American Prohibition era of the early 20th century proved, banning a product won’t stop people from buying it if they want it badly enough – and that’s exactly what happened when South Africa instituted a ban on alcohol and tobacco sales during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The University of Cape Town conducted an online survey of more than 16,000 smokers to find out what those people were doing during the lockdown. The survey’s results demonstrated fairly conclusively that the ban on tobacco sales had not produced the intended effect.
- Only 16 percent of those surveyed had quit smoking successfully.
- Only 41 percent of those surveyed had even tried to quit.
- Of those who had quit successfully, 12 percent said that they would resume buying cigarettes as soon as they could legally do so.
If most South African smokers haven’t quit during the COVID-19 lockdown, where are they getting their cigarettes?
The University of Cape Town survey suggests that, while most mainstream retailers have indeed stopped selling tobacco products as mandated by the government, many smaller shops have continued selling both cigarettes and vape juice under the counter.
In addition, citizens are selling tobacco products to one another privately – and illegally – over social media platforms.
In publishing their findings, researchers from the University of Cape Town warned that the ban on tobacco sales was not having the intended effect and could have inadvertently created a thriving black market that will persist even after lockdowns have eased.
The South African Ban on Vaping Sales Has Stifled a Growing Industry
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African vaping industry was growing at an incredible rate. In January 2020, Research and Markets forecasted that, from 2020-2024, the South African vaping industry would expand at a compound annual growth rate of 18.6 percent.
The vaping industry in South Africa earned a yearly revenue of $20.7 million in 2018. Research and Markets forecasted that, by 2024, the industry would earn $62 million annually.
It’s likely that the COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa will stifle the growth of the vaping industry. Research suggests that it is much easier to find cigarettes in South Africa than it is to find e-liquid.
It’s likely that the lockdown has caused some vapers to go back to smoking, since very few people have discontinued nicotine use.
The South African Vaping Ban Is a Missed Opportunity for Harm Reduction
Although many claims have been made in the media about vaping and COVID-19, there is actually no evidence to date that vaping increases the chance of contracting COVID-19 or of developing complications from the infection.
There is, however, plenty of evidence proving that cigarette smoking is likely to produce a negative outcome in the event of a COVID-19 infection – and, as the University of Cape Town survey proves, very few South African smokers have actually quit during the pandemic.
In light of the data, then, it is our view that South Africa’s ban on the sale of vaping products during the COVID-19 pandemic represents a major missed opportunity for harm reduction.
It is not our intention to make light of the pandemic. After all, people choose to smoke; they don’t choose to become infected by a deadly virus. However, it must be said that the number of COVID-19 deaths still pales in comparison to the number of people who have died from smoking over the same time period.
Each year, around 7-8 million people around the world die from tobacco-related causes.
In addition, it is highly probable that, if everything else is the same, a vaper has a better chance than a smoker of making a full recovery in the event of COVID-19 infection.