Tobacco control lobbyists and other moralization groups are blaming the spread of the coronavirus on alcohol and cigarettes, and calling for a total ban on these products. With an increasing number of countries in Africa issuing “stay at home” or “shelter in place” directives, businesses regarded as essential remain open. The lists of essential businesses have some variation across various countries in Africa, with some selling Alcohol and Tobacco.
South Africa recently banned the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, without sufficient evidence that the ban will limit the spread of Covid-19. This has led to an increase in illegal cigarette trade and looting sprees which have cost their government R35 Million daily by way of unpaid excise duties. The recently implemented alcohol and cigarette bans have given rise to a new era of illicit trade under lock-down.
Prohibition has never worked in the history of humankind. There are few policies so widely supported that have been disastrously counter-productive and unjust; prohibition being one of them. The iron law of prohibition states that the more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the prohibited substance becomes. If alcohol and cigarettes are prohibited, they will become more potent, will have greater variability in potency, will be adulterated with unknown or dangerous substances, and will not be produced and consumed under normal market constraints.
Governments in Africa need to acknowledge that punitive enforcement has proven expensive and counterproductive. They need to reorient towards pragmatic health and harm reduction approaches that have been shown to minimize effects, especially in these resource-limited coronavirus times. Prohibition enforcement is rife with corruption on both the national and local levels. There will be no easier way to make money in Africa than to be a bribable prohibition agent! It will breed corruption and crime.
Calls for a total ban on cigarettes and alcohol remind me of the prohibition era in America which ended in 1933 after 13 years and is today regarded by many as a catastrophic mistake that caused more deaths and harms than if the government had taken no action. Prohibition caused far too many toxic home and other bootleg brews to be sold or traded in an extensive black market. Although the consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of Prohibition, it subsequently increased. Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime increased and became “organized”; the court and prison systems became stretched to the breaking point, and corruption of public officials was rampant.
The lessons of Prohibition remain important today. Governments can move the debate forward by calling for more human-centered objectives and measurable indicators for the future. Evidence-based responses should be the standard for countries to enable them to curb the health and social consequences of alcohol use and smoking during this lock-down and curfew period .
One of the underlying issues is whether people had a right to consume alcoholic beverages. Do people have a right to drink or smoke? Some sections of tobacco control believe that people who smoke or use nicotine products are morally weak or deserve to be punished! What makes liquor essential? Liquor is essential because many people believe it is essential to them. Alcoholics struggling with addiction know alcohol is essential because it will stave off the unwanted and severe effects of withdrawal. However, people with alcohol use disorder don’t account for the majority of people who have been rushing stores and buying alcohol in vast quantities.
Lock-down is proving to be hard for millions of us staying between four walls most of the time. Most of us are merely trying to cope, and if indulging responsibly makes us feel better, we should be allowed to do so responsibly.