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“Cigarette smuggling – Has Govt. created a rod for its own back?”

Much has been written recently on the growing problem of cigarette smuggling into South Africa. Admittedly, it is a large and rapidly growing problem. Criminal elements are thriving and SARS is losing out on billions of rand in lost revenue in the form of taxes, customs & excise duties, etc. But, when one takes a hard look at the practical realities of the situation, could it not be that the government itself has, like Dr. Frankenstein, largely through its constantly escalating “sin taxes” and various other levies, penalties and surcharges, created a monster that has now turned on its creator?
The simple, “round number” facts of the problem are easy to pinpoint. Just north of our borders, there lies a country which continues to struggle with a decades old dictatorship. The citizens are desperate to keep body and soul together by any means necessary. It is common knowledge that packs of 20 cigarettes are produced there for as little as R3 per pack. These smokes – and billions more – then find their way across our porous borders and are freely available to SA smokers countrywide for between R6 and R8 per pack. Compared to any number of “mainstream” or “normal” brands which sell for anywhere up to R35 per pack. Why the huge disparity? The answer is simple – government greed. Plain, old-fashioned greed.

Our hypocritical, holier-than-thou Dept. of Health – in conjunction with SARS and The Treasury – have, for years, conspired to artificially drive up the retail cost of smoking   by escalating the taxes and duties payable to well over 50% on every pack sold. That’s, on average, R18 out of every R35 paid. Simply put, the government happily rakes in billions each fiscal year in the form of outrageous taxes from the producers, manufacturers and distributors of cigarettes and tobacco products to line its coffers – whilst simultaneously bewailing the grimly determined high rate of smoking and smoking related illnesses and deaths in SA. Perhaps the situation could best be described as “Having your smoke and smoking it too!”

How much longer can the government continue to display such blatant hypocrisy? Either they want to eradicate smoking or they don’t. If they want to eradicate it, it follows that it is thus morally and ethically wrong to continue to extract huge amounts of revenue for something they want to stamp out. Ban smoking or don’t. Make up your mind. The unfortunate answer is that they will not. Not while there are billions to be made without lifting a finger by bilking the tobacco companies and, of course, the average South African smoker. At this point, the inherently skewed situation has now come full circle in that millions of normal, bog-standard SA smokers have, en-masse, baulked at paying ludicrous prices for their daily nicotine fix and (quite understandably) resorted to buying “black market cigarettes” and, in effect, been forced to criminalise themselves in the process. Not only are millions of people now “criminals” in the eyes of the government, but those same people have unwittingly been driven to stoking the flames of a growing criminal smuggling problem by the greed of very same government that, to a large extent, created the problem in the first place.

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