JOHANNESBURG: A South African National Defense Force (SANDF) soldier commands a man to wear a face mask in Hillbrow, Johannesburg during a joint patrol by the South African National Defense Force (SANDF). - AFP

JOHANNESBURG: South Africa's decision to extend a ban on cigarette sales has inflamed a row as the country prepared loosening stringent restrictions imposed to contain the spread of coronavirus. The government last month outlawed the sale of alcohol and tobacco products when it imposed the lockdown, considered as one of the strictest in Africa. The country will on May 1 begin a gradual and phased lifting of coronavirus restrictions. President Ramaphosa last week said tobacco sales would be reintroduced starting Friday.

But on Wednesday night, Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, rolled back the government's earlier decision. She said after further and wider consultations on the health repercussions of smoking in the face of the respiratory disease, it was decided to uphold the ban. "We …debated the matter and decided that we must continue as we are when it comes to cigarettes and tobacco products, and (that) we shouldn't open up the sale. "The reasons are health-related," she said.

Tobacco retailers and producers are up in arms. A collective of cigaretter producers, the Fair-trade Independent Tobacco Association (FITA), is heading to court. "It's quite baffling …to us (as) to what changed between the announcement on Thursday evening and the announcement made on Wednesday evening," Fita's chairman Sinenhlanhla Mnguni said. "We are therefore left with no alternative choice … save to approach the courts for appropriate relief," Mnguni said in an audio note to AFP.

The South African Informal Traders Alliance (SAITA), which represents tens of thousands of informal traders and hawkers, was "alarmed" at the decision to prolong the ban. "We recognize the health risks associated with the sale of tobacco products, but we must remember that it is not a banned industry, and that we must allow adults to make their own choices," said SAITA's leader Rosheda Muller. "As traders, we are simply providing a service based on a customers' choice. This allows us to feed our families, educate our children, and sustain jobs," he said in a statement.

The ban has cost the treasury 300-million-rand (US$16-million) in lost taxes, according to the revenue collection agency SARS. It has also divided cabinet. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni told lawmakers on Thursday that "I didn't like the continuous ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco, but I lost the debate and therefore I have to toe the line." Meanwhile more that 400,000 South Africans have signed a petition against the "unfair and spiteful" ban.

Anti-smoking lobbyists have welcomed the ban and called for the toughening of tobacco control regulations. "Health supercedes commercial interests," said Pamela Naidoo of the Heart & Stroke Foundation. "While the right of the individual is important, when we are facing a crisis …that poses a danger to society, the rights of the collective to health must take precedence. "We encourage smokers to use this time to stop smoking to improve their health, and to reduce the likelihood of a severe illness should they contract Covid-19." - AFP