A South African high court on Friday dismissed a bid by tobacco makers to unban sales of their products, saying the addictiveness of cigarettes did not qualify them as essential products.
Since March 27, the government has imposed a tobacco sales ban as part of stringent measures to control the spread of the coronavirus.
The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (FITA) legally challenged the “irrational” ban saying it had led to the mushrooming of an illicit cigarette market in the country which was effectively killing the multi-million dollar business.
The cigarette makers also argued that forcing people to go “cold turkey” was cruel, asking the court to classify tobacco as an essential service, which would allow for the product to be sold, even under lockdown.
But the request went up in smoke and three judges in the Gauteng high court ruled that cigarettes and related tobacco products do not, by their nature, fall into the same category as goods which are life-sustaining or necessary for basic functionality.
“FITA’s argument that cigarettes ought to have been considered ‘essential’ because they are additive has no merit,” read the judgement.
“The fact that a substance is addictive does not render it essential.”
Tobacco and alcohol were among the products banned since the beginning of the lockdown, meant to slow down the spread of coronavirus.
When President Cyril Ramaphosa lifted the ban on alcohol sales on June 1, he kept the moratorium on tobacco “due to the health risks associated with smoking”.
In court, the state had argued that the ban on tobacco products was done to reduce access to cigarettes and force people to stop smoking.
South Africa has some 11 million smokers in a population of 58 million.
The ban has cost the treasury 300 million rand (US$17 million, 15 million euros) in lost taxes, according to the revenue collection agency SARS.
The application by FITA was dismissed with costs, including the costs of three counsel.
A separate legal battle between government and British American Tobacco South was on Friday moved to August.