In the wake of the ban on tobacco sales, South African smokers have been paying between R80 and R300 for a pack of cigarettes – up to six times the price of the most expensive brands prior to the lockdown.

Some say they are paying as much as R3 000 for a carton of 10 packs of cigarettes. And as the lockdown continues, prices are only increasing.

The ban on the buying and selling of cigarettes and tobacco products was instituted in late March when South Africa went into lockdown for first time. Almost seven weeks later it is still in place, and some smokers have turned to what appears to be a thriving underground market for their nicotine fix. 

“The reality is a smoker will rather go to sleep hungry than not to be able to smoke – sad but true,” says a smoker, who has been hooked since she was a teen. “This is a real struggle and has made me [feel] like a criminal seeking my next fix.”

‘Nothing sinister’

Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, has said there is “nothing sinister” behind the state’s decision to ban tobacco products. Not only does smoking pose a health risk, but it “does not allow for social distancing and encourages the spread of the virus.”

The World Heath Organisation, meanwhile, earlier this month said that smokers are “more likely to develop severe disease with Covid-19, compared to non-smokers.”

While it is impossible to know how demand has been affected, many smokers say they are searching for cigarettes anywhere they can get them. With a contraction in legal supply, illicit prices have skyrocketed.

Where it was once possible to pop down to the café or petrol station to buy a pack, smokers now share names of contacts who have stock or trawl cafés seeking to buy something under the counter.    

Readers who emailed Fin24 sketched in some detail how the prices of black-market cigarettes have continued to surge during the lockdown. Shortly after the ban was instituted, prices roughly doubled. Now they appear have quadrupled.  

And many smokers are kicking themselves for not buying more ahead of the initial three week lockdown.

“[I bought] 5 packets during the first week of the lockdown in Emmarentia thinking perhaps the government would come to its senses about adults smoking during the lockdown. I was clearly wrong. All I can say is, there’s not been a day where I didn’t smoke cigarettes since the lockdown,” writes  a reader. “Smokers … help each other if we find a new dealer.”

‘Busy having a meltdown’

“When lockdown started, I, the myopic fool that I am, only bought 30 packets of cigarettes, thinking that cigarettes will be sold at some point when they realise how much sin tax they are losing out on,” writes another reader.

Near the start of the lockdown, she was still buying popular brands such as Peter Stuyvesant for roughly double their pre-lockdown price. Once her favourites were out, she had to take what was on offer.

“[I] bought 3 packets of a brand … which purportedly has a chocolate or liquorice flavour. It doesn’t, it tastes almost manure-like.”

She recently paid R170 a pack for a brand called Pine Blue. 

Her situation appears to be common. With established brands hard to come by, some smokers have to turned to brands of dubious quality.

“The only problem with these cheap brand cigarettes they make my chest painful and also give me a rash and allergies. But I smoke nevertheless out of desperation,” said a reader, who says they got hold of brands for around R60 a packet.

Another reader sent an image of Pine Silver cigarettes for sale, a brand not found in South Africa. “Fumar prejudicial à saúde” the carton says,  Portuguese for smoking is harmful. The cigarettes apparently come from Mozambique. 

While some smokers didn’t set out to break the law, they say the stress of the lockdown, such as working from home and home-schooling children with no outside help, caused them to turn the underground market.

“My cigarette in my happy place in the garden, has become my sanity, my mental health check and break away from all the demands….This was ripped away from me,” writes a reader. 

“My coping mechanism is taken away,” said another smoker. “A demanding job and 3 boys at home with my parents – a mom who survived breast cancer and is in remission.”

Others say they first tried to respect the state’s ban, thinking it may be for the best as it would give them a reason to reduce their smoking or even quit. 

But once the lockdown was extended and their initial stock ran out, some they turned to the underground market.

“All that stress of finding cigarettes in the black market and smoking unknown brands caused me to relapse a bit and I lost track of the number of cigarettes I consume on a daily. Furthermore, these brands didn’t really satisfy my cravings like the normal ones so, I consumed more and more,” writes a reader.

There may be hope on the horizon for smokers wanting to again buy legal cigarettes. On Wednesday evening President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that much of the country may be downgraded to alert Level 3 at the end of May. Under draft regulations, the sale of tobacco products would again be permitted. But the government has once before announced that the sale of cigarettes could restart, only to backtrack later. 

Until then, many smokers will continue to rely on underground sales. 

“I am an essential worker and there is no way I can go cold turkey now,” writes a smoker.  “I have bought so called illegal cigarettes at ridiculously high prices and they are rubbish and extremely bad for my health.”

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