South Africa

'It's very difficult to believe anything we hear from government now' - British American Tobacco SA

'It's very difficult to believe anything we hear from government now' - British American Tobacco SA

British American Tobacco is resuming its legal challenge against the ban on the sale of tobacco products after it says the government betrayed its trust.

This week, after it became clear the sales ban would remain in place, Johnny Moloto, head of external affairs for British American Tobacco South Africa, said the company's trust in government has been abused and taken advantage of.

The company said on Friday in a statement that it was “commencing urgent legal proceedings to challenge the government‘s decision to extend the ban on tobacco sales during level 3".

Batsa said it was supported in this action by Japan Tobacco International (JTI) as well as others in the tobacco value chain including consumers, tobacco farmers and retailers.

Moloto says it withdrew its legal challenge to the continued ban on the sale of cigarettes in level 4 after receiving a letter from the state law adviser in which it saw “some semblance of hope that we could get the ban lifted”, and after “being led to believe that government would engage with us directly over the ban for us to be included in level 3".

But he says the company‘s efforts to engage with the government over lifting the ban were ignored, he says. And on Thursday it was confirmed that the ban would remain.

Our trust has been broken
Johnny Moloto

“We were led to believe we'd be included in level 3 given that we'd been hard done by in level 4. That at least we'd be given a chance to make our case.”

When this never happened, the company wrote three letters to President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose reversal of his public statement that the cigarette ban would be lifted in level 4 precipitated their legal challenge.

“We thought when the president has spoken then the decision taken is a final one. We wanted to know how it could then be reversed.”

Apart from an automated acknowledgment of receipt they received “not a single response”.

They wrote to all the relevant ministers asking to be included in consultations around the ban but no-one responded, “not even an official to say your letter is receiving the minister's attention”.

He says it is evident the government took advantage of the company's trust and willingness to co-operate.

“This is the sentiment in the company. That we have to the best of our ability tried to co-operate and be responsive to all the concerns so that we trade in a way that is compliant” with the original intentions of the lockdown.

“When the lockdown started, the president was very certain and very clear that it was to restrict the movement of people in order to flatten the curve and allow us to prepare beds for when the infection spikes. It was never about banning any products.”

BAT SA's clout

• Leading tobacco manufacturer in the country with 78% market share of the legal cigarette market.

• Cigarettes sold through 50,000 outlets.

• In 2019, BAT South Africa contributed R13bn in total taxes, of which R10bn was tobacco excise.

• Procures 90% of the locally grown tobacco leaf supporting tens of thousands of farmers and their families across the provinces.

• Directly contributed over R70m in the Emerging Tobacco Farmers Initiative. The programme directly supports 150 black tobacco farmers in South Africa.

- Source: BAT SA

The health reasons related to the harmfulness of tobacco products existed before the lockdown, he says. “Surely that doesn't suddenly become the reason now for you to want to ban us from operating?”

Minister of co-operative governance & traditional affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma recently justified the ban because it has made people quit smoking.

Asks Moloto: “Is the intention now to drive behaviour around specific products?”

“We're not sure. No sooner have we responded to the issue of people sharing cigarettes than there's another reason, so we don't know.

“Suddenly the entire lockdown has become about the tobacco industry.”

And far from the engagement they'd hoped for when they suspended their legal action “everything concerning us has happened without us having a voice. Government speaks against us but won't speak to us directly.”

He denies that the decision not to proceed with its legal challenge to the ban was premature.

“We believe the approach we took was the right one. Our trust has been broken.”

Minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu said on Wednesday he did not see the ban on cigarette sales continuing in level 2. But Moloto has learnt to be cautious about emanations from the Union Buildings.

“It's very difficult to believe anything we hear from government now, even with the best of intentions,” he says.

The government has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Business Times