In December 2021, the National Treasury published a proposal to tax electronic nicotine and non-nicotine delivery systems in South Africa. The Treasury points to the increased consumption of these products among youth worldwide and their potential to undermine tobacco control efforts. Based on the Treasury’s calculations, the total excise duty would range from R 33.30 to R 346.00, dependent on volume and nicotine strength.
The proposal mirrors anti-vaping efforts spearheaded by the World Health Organisation and lacks understanding of harm reduction. The vaping tax would deprive South African smokers of the opportunity to quit, and drive current vapers back to combustible tobacco consumption.
A snap survey conducted by the Vaping Saved My Life (VSML) consumer group in South Africa interviewed 1480 vapers in the country, and the results are staggering. 26.6 per cent of vapers would go back to smoking, and another 26.2 per cent would get their e-liquids from informal sources.
By introducing the tax, the South African government will further extend the list of its unsuccessful anti-smoking policies. To curb smoking, the South African government has been using conventional tobacco control measures such as advertising restrictions, smoke-free areas, and taxes. In 2020, a temporary ban on the sales of cigarettes was introduced. These restrictions rest on the dangerous assumption that complete abstinence is possible and that it can be achieved by drastically reducing access to tobacco products.
Such an approach has not proven to be effective–neither in South Africa, nor anywhere else in the world. A 2021 Tax Justice SA (TJSA) report found that 2 out of 3 cigarettes sold in South Africa are illicit. In Ireland and the UK, where the price of cigarettes is also very high, the effects are the same. These unintended consequences of tobacco control are traceable across the board, and are predictable.
A more sensible solution would be to abandon the pursuit of complete abstinence and embrace harm reduction. As Dr Tyndall, Professor UBC School of Population & Public Health, explains, “starting with abstinence is like asking a new diabetic to quit sugar or a severe asthmatic to start running marathons or a depressed person to just be happy.”
Harm reduction is, ﬁrst and foremost, humane as it recognises that addiction is complex, and it is almost impossible to quit at the whim of the government. For that reason, vaping was welcomed by smokers as a safer alternative. The diversity of vape ﬂavours allows vapers to experiment and move away from smoking entirely. Flavoured vaping devices were found to be associated with an 230% increase in the odds of adult smoking cessation.
The youth vaping pandemic is often used as a means to undermine vaping. But, in fact, between 2019 and 2021, the use of electronic cigarettes among US teens dropped by more than 50 percent from 27.5% to 11.3%.
Commenting on the effects of the proposed vaping tax, Kurt Yeo, co-founder of the VSML, said: “VSML believes implementing any tax on safer alternatives will have devastating, yet predictable consequences to existing users of ENDs products and smokers wishing to quit.”
Michael Landl, director of the World Vaper Alliance, a global vapers’ movement, added that “the tax on vaping products will harm public health in South Africa. People who want to stay away from cigarettes or switch should not be abused as a source of funding for the state’s budget crisis.”
If the South African government really wants to help reduce the smoking rates, it should abstain from taxing vaping products, or keep the tax rate as low as possible. Smokers, especially those who smoke heavily, should be encouraged to switch to safer alternatives, and the ineffective and dangerous abstinence WHO-inspired ideology should be abandoned. Vaping saves lives, and let’s hope the South African government learns that lesson before it’s too late.