THE GOVERNMENT executed a spectacular U-turn on Wednesday on its tweeted stance that the twin bans on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes would remain in place for as long as the country is under lockdown.
In an update issued some five hours after the initial tweet, the government said it wished to correct the message and stated that the prohibition applied to the current Level 3 lockdown regulations.
“1/2: This account posted a tweet earlier today which said that the ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes would remain in place throughout the lockdown period. This is incorrect. The sale of alcohol and tobacco products is prohibited under the current Level 3 regulations,” it said.
“2/2: This decision may be reviewed at any time by the relevant structures should the conditions which necessitated it change. We regret any confusion the tweet has caused.”
The initial tweet was then removed.
It had prompted a swift objection from the Fair-Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) that there had been earlier top-level assurances to the contrary.
“We call upon government to immediately clarify a tweet posted on the official government twitter account (@GovernmentZA) earlier today stating that the ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarette (sic) will remain in place throughout the lockdown period,” the association said in a statement.
The original tweet said the reason for maintaining the unpopular prohibition on alcohol and tobacco was to “save lives and protect the health and well-being of our people”.
“This statement contradicts government’s previous position on this issue, with inter alia President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister Jackson Mthembu both stating on a number of occasions publicly that it was only a matter of time before the ban on the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products was lifted,” said Fita.
Sinenhlanhla Nguni, the chairperson of Fita, recalled that on May 29, Mthembu, the Minister in the Presidency, told a media briefing: “The ban on cigarettes, it’s just at this level we are in. We don’t know how many weeks we will be at this level. I can assure you after we’ve been out of Level 3, I don’t see the ban on the sale of cigarettes continuing.”
However, the Fita chairperson said that Wednesday’s government statement created the impression that the state had “no intention of lifting the ban on the sale of cigarettes under any level during the lockdown period”.
Mthembu is also on record as being of the view that by law, the government can extend the national state of disaster, under which it imposed the lockdown, indefinitely, on a month-to-month basis.
He could not be reached to explain the government’s reversal of position on Wednesday.
The bans came into effect at the start of the lockdown on March 27. The ban on liquor was briefly suspended on July 1, but was reinstated with immediate effect on July 12.
The government said it had seen a surge in alcohol-related injuries since the relaxation of the ban, putting strain on health care facilities.
Meanwhile, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Cape Town has found that the price of bootleg cigarettes has soared during lockdown and that the ongoing ban has proven to be a bonanza for the black market.
The researchers said their survey suggested that only 9% of those canvassed had quit, and called on government to lift the ban immediately.
They found that cigarette prices had soared by 250% on the black market and that the number of smokers sharing cigarettes had risen sharply since the ban, which they said was costing the government at least R1 billion in lost revenue every month.
Fita said prolonging the ban would have dire consequences on several fronts.
“That position of course will have severe consequences for the fiscus, the industry as a whole, and all those who make a living from the industry. We therefore call upon government to urgently clarify its position on this issue.”
The DA was scathing of the initial tweet, saying that if the government went that route, the ban could last into next year.
“What the government has done today is pull the middle finger to every person who works in the tobacco and alcohol industry, more so to all those restaurant owners, chefs and waiters who have been protesting today against the ongoing alcohol ban.
“With his government’s actions today, we now know that President Ramaphosa is nothing more than a spectator to the ideological whims of (Cooperative Governance) Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.”
Fita is challenging the tobacco ban in court, while a coalition of Cape Town establishments have filed notice of motion to challenge the alcohol ban.
– African News Agency (ANA)