Opinion

HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Cut the cigarette ban already

HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Cut the cigarette ban already

OPINION

I know a lot about the ban of cigarettes during lockdown has been discussed and written about a lot. But I still cannot wrap my head around it for so many reasons. Is the Cooperative Governance Department head and co-chair of the coronavirus command council, Nkosisana Dlamini-Zuma, trying to fashion some kind heroism for herself? Is her hope that the ban will stretch further than the lockdown itself and eradicate all those with the habit so that South Africa can be the first country in the world to have no cigarettes or smokers whatsoever?

These sound like ridiculous questions but they are valid because, in the face of the completely bizarre, ludicrous questions need to be asked. Where reason disappears and validation becomes a fringe talking point receding further and further into the dugout of delusion, all that can replace it is ridicule.

Let’s get the economics and lawless conversation out the way real quick before we move on to what I think is a more important discussion. If smokers want cigarettes, trust me, they will get them. It’s not as impossible a task as Dlamini-Zuma thinks it is and her regulations have only increased criminal activity and running of the underworld cigarette trade.

Not only are smokers supplementing their illegal economy, the ban is also creating something we do not want or need as a country – turning law-abiding citizens into criminals or at least people who are willing to participate in the criminal activity of purchasing cigarettes from potentially illegal sources. No one benefits from this. Not the South African economy itself, and innocent people who are willing to put these acts into practice risking their lives and who are threatened with criminal records – all for a cigarette.

Smoking is bad for you. Every smoker knows that. None of them need you to prove it or educate them on it. It is a personal decision they have a right to make, and they make it (under normal circumstances) in completely lawful ways. The argument that smokers are more at risk to contract COVID-19 is moot – a smoker’s lungs are already at risk, smoking more doesn’t change that fact.

The point that’s trying to be made about vindicating the ban because people will share a cigarette and thus increase the risk of spreading the disease is a ridiculous moot point too – especially since the sale of alcohol is now permitted. I can almost guarantee that more people sip from each other's bottles and leave their saliva all over it than those who share a cigarette.

And while it is an addiction, smoking doesn’t lead to increases in domestic violence or violence in general. It doesn’t increase horrible car accidents, or random acts of aggression, and it does not fill up ICU beds that need to be used for so much more resulting from the effects of alcohol and its influence on toxic masculinity. Oh, by the way, alcohol addiction is a thing too.

Finally, I would like to talk a bit out the reliance and dependence on being able to smoke for those who are in recovery, rehabilitated drug addicts and even people who use it as a coping mechanism for mental health. Cigarettes, believe it or not, are harm-reducing appendages for many of these people.

Here’s an example from the US on the ban of smoking at treatment facilities. In January 2019 health officials in Philadelphia banned residents of treatment centres from going outside to smoke. The policy was in effect at 80 inpatient detox and addiction treatment facilities. This affected the rate at which people who needed help. They became less likely to check themselves in to assist with a substance abuse disorder because of an ultimatum that can easily be summed up thus: you can only get help if you don’t smoke, if you choose to ignore this rule, then please continue as you were with your heroine, crystal meth, opiate or alcohol substance abuse disorder.

Studies have proven that smoking bans increase the risk of people leaving treatment centres for addictions, even against medical advice. Smoking bans make it harder for people to enter treatment facilities but not only that, but they also make it difficult for people to retain their rehabilitation once they have left the facility and they revert to the use of hard drugs, which are much more harmful and very accessible – and also obviously illegal.

If these are not enough critically substantial arguments against the ban of smoking, then let me ask one last question: we are already banned from advertising cigarettes, we are already practising harm reduction by having plenty of dedicated “non-smoking” areas. Tobacco is already bound and controlled by several rules and age verification requirements. We pay our sin taxes to participate in this chosen behaviour and we, in most cases, abide by the rules when acquiring cigarettes.

The only restriction heavily and boldly printed on most alcohol advertisements is an age restriction - which is one of the very few constraints that its sale and consumption are bound to. What sense does it make then to allow the sale of alcohol, which has no other conditions while smoking has so many, if we're concerned with the safety and harm reduction of society?

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.