The Tobacco Institute of South Africa (TISA), a body set up to lobby on behalf of Big Tobacco’s interests in South Africa, is finally closing up shop. In a statement released on TISA’s website last week, the organisation announced plans to “wind up its operations,” after its members agreed to “redeploy their resources to fulfil their individual strategic objectives.”
Public health officials and tax collectors alike are sure to be cheered by the news of TISA’s demise. Though the association has long put up a front of being invested in resolving the pressing issue of the illicit cigarette trade which saps South Africa’s government revenue while undermining public health initiatives, the organisation has in fact lobbied hard to either block or subvert vital government regulation efforts.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the global trade in illicit tobacco products drains governments worldwide of a devastating US$40.5 billion in revenue every year. In South Africa, one fifth of the total cigarette market is estimated to be made up of underground smokes— many of which are manufactured by industry giants themselves.
Worse still, TISA has already gone to great lengths to muddy the waters of public debate over tobacco regulation. In 2018, the tobacco lobby group launched a Twitter campaign called #TakeBackTheTax, declaring—with the help of online influencers it paid— that the economy loses US$475 million in tax revenue every year thanks to illicit tobacco. The fault, TISA argued at the time, lay with the South African Revenue Service (SARS) itself.
Meanwhile, the timing of the #TakeBackTheTax campaign just so happened to coincide with government efforts to curb smoking. "The new Bill won't make a difference,” TISA chairperson Francois van der Merwes sneered. “How do you reduce consumption when the market is flooded with illegal cheap cigarettes?” In fact, TISA was carrying out a classic bait-and-switch, to the detriment of genuine public health initiatives.
While TISA has suggested that its breakup is part of a strategic redeployment of its members’ resources, the credit for the industry body’s dissolution should in part be given to the relentless pressure which public accountability bodies have put on the tobacco lobby group over a laundry list of misdemeanours, including corruption, money-laundering, tax evasion, unfair trade practices and undue influence over law enforcement officials.
Perhaps the most glaring example of Big Tobacco’s hold on public officials has been its attempts to derail SARS’s efforts to implement a nationwide mechanism to track and trace tobacco, in compliance with South Africa’s responsibilities as a signatory of the WHO’s Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products. The WHO, along with public health bodies the world over, considers the implementation of such a system a critical step in curbing the illicit tobacco trade—yet South Africa’s efforts to follow through have come under unceasing fire from Big Tobacco.
Much of this criticism has been transmitted through its mouthpiece, TISA. Last year, the organisation’s chair van der Merwes was again in the media spotlight, this time arguing that a new system for tracking cigarettes could “waste billions” of taxpayers’ money while failing to adequately consult value chain stakeholders.
"[The track-and-trace system] will impose excessive and impractical regulatory burdens on small retailers when the real problem lies with local manufacturers who are evading taxes,” claimed van der Merwes. “This will only encourage retailers to sell illegal products because they won’t be able to cover the compliance costs of receiving legal cigarettes."
TISA’s arguments might have held more water if Big Tobacco didn’t enjoy such a long record of twisting the truth—and, more specifically, of making every effort to take control of emerging track-and-trace systems the world over. According to the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade, packs of cigarettes and rolling tobacco must now be marked with secure and unique IDs so authorities can track the movement of products from manufacture to their point of sale. In the interests of neutrality, the tobacco industry—which has previously been found complicit in the smuggling of its own products— is to be kept separate from the entire process.
Predictably, Big Tobacco—the very same industry which had to publish court-ordered admissions of guilt after decades of lies, including false claims that cigarettes did not cause cancer and could even carry health benefits– has done just the opposite. Indeed, the major tobacco companies, led by Philip Morris International (PMI), developed their own track-and-trace technology, Codentify. PMI licensed the system for free use to its fellow tobacco competitors, and has spared no expense promoting the mechanism to governments through front groups and third parties—ignoring warnings that Codentify is not fit for purpose. If industry players have their way, government efforts to crack down on the illicit cigarette trade and recoup lost tax will only have the opposite effect.
At the same time as the organisation has done its best to prevent South Africans from having an independent, functional system capable of tracking tobacco products, TISA has done nothing to limit efforts to stymy other, much-need public health initiatives related to smoking. Over the years, the association has taken aim at plain packing, the regulation of e-cigarettes, and any number of other health campaigns that could lead to people turning away from the devastating, impacts of smoking.
With roughly 10% of South Africans dying from tobacco-related illnesses, Big Tobacco’s belligerent interference in efforts to keep the country healthy and line the public coffers are nothing short of criminal. It’s little wonder that the country will shed few tears at TISA’s demise.