The negative consequences of tobacco smoking on lives and the environment cannot be overemphasized. According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2017 fact sheet on tobacco, it remains a huge threat to public health, killing up to seven million people per annum.

In this light, the South African government is currently rolling out new smoking laws that mirror measures already in place in countries outside Africa. It was announced in April that the South African Cabinet had approved the Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill, making it the government’s first major reforms to tobacco control legislation in a decade.

The bill, which was initiated by the Department of Health, proposes a complete ban on smoking in outdoor public places, prohibits vending machines, and brings electronic cigarettes and other electronic nicotine delivery devices into the regulatory fold.

A long time coming

The government had started work on curbing tobacco consumption two years ago, following major legislation in 2005 that limited smoking to 25 percent of public spaces. But this year, Cyril Ramaphosa’s government is expected to take decisive action that will not only curtail the influence of the industry but also yield the desired national results.

Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa’s health minister, who boldly proclaimed his hatred for the tobacco industry earlier this year, accepted the negligence of the government over the years in passing stronger regulations. “I can assure you that we are going to legislate further and we wish to apologize, even to the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC), that South Africa was ahead of many countries and we slowed down. We are now going to accelerate,” the minister said, referring to the main international treaty meant to crack down on out of control smoking rates.

But it remains to be seen if the government has the mettle to go after an industry that provides so much cash to South Africa’s coffers.

Big Tobacco pushback

Naturally, the proposed piece of legislation is likely to be met with significant pushback from the tobacco industry. Already, officials are warning of fierce resistance from Big Tobacco, which sees the African continent as its key market for future growth. “Our motive is to protect public health. Their mandate is to protect profits. We are going to be tampering with their profit-making processes. Of course, they are going to fight back,” said Lorato Mahura of the health department’s tobacco control unit.

The tobacco industry has argued, with the same points it has always used before, that these new laws will do precious little to curb smoking and that they will increase the black market trade and smuggling while also destroying the livelihood of tobacco farmers and small business owners involved in the supply chain. Speaking with Jacarandafm, the chairman of Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa (TISA), Francois van der Merwe, said the market is already filled “with cheap cigarettes which stimulate consumption.

Of course, TISA’s comments should be taken with a grain of salt. The body has a history of pushing policymakers away from any regulations that would affect the tobacco industry’s bottom line. For example, TISA has consistently argued that any sort of measure would only lead to an increase in the illicit trade – even if there was scant evidence showing a correlation between tobacco control and a growing black market. As one commentator deftly points out, TISA is also intent on making sure that British American Tobacco (BAT), which controls 95% of the market, stays in a monopoly position.

But it’s not just TISA scaremongering that could derail further tobacco control. Tobacco companies also have a history of using court injunctions to slow down proposed legislation by African countries that might hit their bottom lines. An investigation by The Guardian in 2017 revealed that BAT and some other multinational tobacco firms threatened governments in some African countries with court suits demanding they remove or dilute the kind of protections that have saved millions of lives in the West. There are about 77 million smokers in Africa, numbers that are predicted to rise by nearly 40 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 – the largest projected increase in the world.

Which is where Motsoaledi’s surprising apologies to the FCTC come in. In order to help with formulating laws that protect the lives of their citizens, many African countries have signed the World Health Organization-backed treaty as well as its specific treaty to curb the illicit trade in tobacco products. One of the key tenets? Barring any decision maker from interacting with tobacco representatives due to the industry’s long-running schemes to cheat and lie to regulators.

As key players in the industry are targeting Africa’s young population, the global health community intends to send a strong signal of support to South Africa. The 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH), which was held in Cape Town, South Africa two months ago, was the first of such conferences held on the continent. It also set a precedent for a more determined approach to the dangers and ills of smoking tobacco.

With South Africa’s extremely young population, coupled with the high unemployment rates, both the tobacco industry and the WHO see the country as a battleground that will set the trajectory for tobacco control throughout the rest of the continent. For the good of the country’s youth, let’s just hope Pretoria’s resilience will not waver in the months to come.

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