The ‘cigarette’ is one of the most contested inventions of human history and is often at the centre of conflict surrounding money, health, human rights, and addiction. Today, most people acknowledge the harmful potential and danger of cigarettes.
Several national governments have channelled significant state resources into regulating the tobacco industry, and persuading citizens to abstain from smoking. These incentives and changes have a direct impact on smoking policies.
UP can be seen as a ‘microcosm’ of South African society, as the institution often reflects wider national and social changes, ideologies, values, and culture. During the early 1900s, cigarettes started gaining popularity as factories started mass-producing them – and subsequently, the smoking habit boomed after World War 2.During the 1950s, the first medical studies started reporting a correlation between individuals who smoked cigarettes and lung cancer. In the 1800s, lung cancer was considered one of the rarest diseases to exist, but within decades, it became alarmingly prevalent. Tobacco companies denied this correlation and retaliated with aggressive advertising campaigns.
One such advertisement was published in 1954 in Die Perdeby for Rembrandt cigarettes. For a long time, cigarette advertisements have been banned but during the early 1900s, as the smoking habit boomed, the market was unregulated. Companies targeted specific groups such as students and young adults in general as a way to increase smoking.The most controversial topic historically, regarding smoking at UP, is arguably banning women from smoking on campus. Die Perdeby, in earlier years, suggested that smoking is unfeminine and that women would be fined for smoking on campus. One example published on 17 May 1968 titled “Men don’t like ladies who smoke” relays this idea and tries to discern whether it is junior or senior female students who are the culprits.
“ the institution often reflects wider national and social changes, ideologies, values, and culture.“
On 19 February 1971, Die Perdeby reported that female students started a petition to lift the policy prohibiting female students from smoking on campus – students contested the idea that smoking is unfeminine and that there is not any concrete explanation for the ban.In 1970 on 13 February, an article titled “Smoking prohibited” in Die Perdeby illuminates the point in time where smoking was banned inside lecture halls and additional spaces such as the library and laboratories. On 23 April 1971,Die Perdeby published an article titled‘‘Smoking associated with lung cancer’’, discussing how 90% of lung cancer cases are associated with smoking. This marks a point where people increasingly acknowledged the dangers of smoking.
The South African government started increasingly taxing cigarettes for various reasons, by adding what has been called ‘sin tax’ on these products. Professor Francois Steyn, from the Criminology and Social Work department, explains that the South African government’s continued taxation of cigarettes is “in part to discourage smoking, but also often used as a mechanism to assist in making up shortfalls in the national budget”. Another effect of the taxation is that smokers start buying illegal or contraband tobacco products “at a much cheaper price, which only benefits organised crime,” Prof. Steyn adds.
The national ban- COVID-19
Several bans were implemented along with the announcement of the COVID-19 lockdown measures. Despite many bans being lifted with restrictions, cigarette and tobacco product sales remain prohibited. The effectiveness of the ban was placed under scrutiny when a UCT survey conducted between 29 April and 11 May, filled in by 16 000 citizens, reported that approximately 90% of smokers were able to obtain cigarettes.
Prof. Steyn explains that “evidence shows that national legislation which limits both the use of and access to cigarettes can reduce the number of smokers”. However, these reductions are highly dependent on “aggressively enforcing laws, from manufacturing tobacco products to the point of sale, and the behaviour of smokers. This also includes the police in curbing illicit cigarettes entering the market”.
The illicit trade in tobacco has been steadily increasing its market share of sales over the last couple of years. Now, due to the COVID-19 ban of cigarettes, the whole market has become illicit and hence, organised crime essentially dominates the market.
In addition, this illicit trade results in the deregulation of the cigarette market. “Another effect is that, without any official oversight in the manufacturing of illegal cigarettes, the government cannot control the tar and nicotine content of cigarettes, which further compromise the already negative health status of smokers”, added Prof. Steyn.
The UP ban
Recently, UP banned smoking on campus, but the ban has since been retracted. Rikus Delport, UP’s spokesperson reports that “the notice was based on a media report which [they] believed was from the Minister’s office and in light of he ban on the sale of cigarettes”. This decision was a pre-emptive measure “taken in the best interest of [the] students and staff in the midst of planning to ensure their health and well-being during the planned, phased return of staff and students to the campuses”. Delport continues to explain that, at UP “[they] take [their] responsibilities to protect the health and well-being of [the] community seriously”.
Although the ban has been officially retracted and there were no changes to the university’s smoking policy, UP is legally obliged to enforce notices, regulations and restrictions that are issued by the national government and specifically DHET (the Department of Higher Education and training).
Smoking has been the centre of much controversy for a large part of the global history. Recently, it has been one of the most contested points during the lockdown in South Africa. Even though UP’s ban has been retracted, it is a marker of the impacts the national governments’ decisions have on institutions and citizens alike.
Illustration: Giovanna Janos