Are smokers South Africa’s new modern-day junkies?

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Her name is Claudette. She drives a Toyota Fortuner with her Yorkie sitting next to her biting the wind and barking at every person and everything. She smokes Marlboro Blu Ice. It is expensive, but it is her brand. Apart from a speeding ticket here and there, she lives on the right side of the law.

She used to.

His name is Marvin. He is a pensioner. His wife died a few years ago. His kids are living in another city with their families, they call every Sunday afternoon. Marvin lives alone now. He smokes Winston. He lives on the right side of the law.

He used to.

His name is Kevin. He has been sober and clean for almost a year – no alcohol, no drugs. Smoking his Peter Stuyvesant helps him to cope and to face his demons. He had his moments of disobeying the law, but things are different. He lives on the right side of the law now.

He used to.

Her name is Jane. His name is Eddy. It is Gordan, Charmaine, Tumi, Shanice, Enzo, Fred, Fanie, Lelo and Yashir. They are the Abrahams family, the Kellers, Meyers, Andersons, Manleys and the Gladstones.

They smoke.

It is your neighbour, your partner, your friend, your colleague, your sibling or yourself.

They know smoking is bad for them, but they smoke.

They know nicotine addiction is real, but they smoke.

It is their choice of indulgence. Always has been, always will be.

But the landscape of smoking in South Africa is hazy.

Smokers are outraged. Even non-smokers are outraged.

Articles get shared left, right and centre. There are court cases. There is political talk. And after 68 days there is still a sliver of hope that an announcement will be made – “any moment now” – that cigarettes are on sale again.

Underneath the haze is the hot box of the illicit trade fumes. Private Facebook groups are popping up all over.

First rule: snitches get stitches.

Claudette, Marvin and Kevin are sitting on these groups, watching as people advertise their beloved brands.

Claudette, Marvin and Kevin. They used to live on the right side of the law. They also used to pay between R30 and R45 for a pack of cigarettes. They watched as the prices doubled and forked over the money. Then they watched as prices tipped the R100-mark. Now it is a one-price-for-all: R250.

They used to live on the right side of the law.

Not anymore. They are supporting the illicit cigarette trade.

Individuals are coughing up more than what they can afford and more than what is necessary. Different aspects of their life suffer – especially financially – as they satisfy the addiction. They used to smoke something decent but the need for nicotine has led them down a path where even smoking rooibos tea has become acceptable. And despite health warnings, they still roll the Five Roses like a proper joint. Even Claudette in her Fortuner has walked down the rooibos path. She uses Twinings Pure Rooibos though.

The cigarette that they now hold on to (if they are lucky) is a brand that they have never seen before. It makes them sick. It brings Pall Mall’s status up to Dunhill’s level. JKF, Ossum, Shasha, CK, Atlantic. Some of the brands hold within its tobacco-wrapped paper flavours like orange, strawberry and apple. Like a cigarette ad on the back of a magazine, real menthol memories are long forgotten.

“This taste horrible!” – John, 14 April 2020.

People now take what they can get.

“I actually like it!” – John, 31 May 2020.

A month ago, Chicago, Atlantic and its JFK buddies were frowned upon. They used to be around R20 a pack. Now they are R80 if you have the right contacts, or between R100 and R150 if – like most people – you are getting screwed over. These brands are now the stars of quality in a sea of cigarettes branded in Chinese writing, the latest newcomer to the market alongside rolling tobacco packed in Ziploc bags that looks like crushed Weet-Bix.

Claudette has tried the Weet-Bix. She is not good at rolling her own, she bought a rolling machine. Another high commodity during these troubling times of puffing and not passing.

Marvin doesn’t understand how Vaping works. But he is asking where he can buy a Vape.

And Kevin. Things are not going good Kevin’s side. Alcohol is now available again and Kevin realised that drugs are cheaper than buying cigarettes.

You see them. Gordan, Charmaine, Tumi, Shanice, Enzo, Fred, Fanie, Lelo and Yashir. They are still buying their smokes. It is easy to know where to go and who to ask. It is easy to spot a deal going down; it is like someone who tries to hide that they stole a cookie yet their mouth is covered in crumbs.

The quality goes down, the price goes up, the demand is being fed and it is illegal.

If the term ‘junkie’ means anything, does that mean that smokers in South Africa are now the new modern-day junkies?

They endure the coughs. They power through the strange taste it leaves on their tongue. They accept, shut up and pay the price.

History repeats itself. The 1920-33 prohibition in America was a failed experiment.

A hundred years later and the lesson has not been learnt; South Africa is no different.

South Africa is not going to be the poster child for nicotine-free lungs.

The mafia deals in zol.

Smokers are planning a nationwide protest against the government’s tobacco ban for the 2nd of June 2020. And Level 3 means you can be outside, and not only between 06:00 and 09:00. But you are not supposed to gather in groups. And there are a few million smokers in South Africa. So, uhm ja. Will this go up in flames?