For smokers, the lockdown has hit extra hard. The accompanying ban on cigarettes and the resulting, often, crippling effect of withdrawal symptoms, has many smokers on their last tether. This had led to many law-abiding citizens now breaking the law to get that much needed fix.

And black market cigarettes are easily available, even in small towns like Hartbeespoort and Brits, and smokers now go to extreme lengths and pay shocking prices to obtain low quality illegal tobacco products.

The contraband market is flourishing in Madibeng. The asking price for contraband that usually costs R14 per pack, is now R60 to R70. If you are lucky enough to lay your hands on legal brand names, prices vary from R100 to even R150 per pack!

Some people drive over 50 kilometres, others meet in clandestine places, even at dealers’ homes. Sellers advertise on Facebook and on WhatsApp groups ‘in code’ (the smokers know what they talk about) at exorbitant prices. Kormorant talked to a number of residents who have not been able to cope with the enforced smoking cessation and are now resorting to ‘underground’ measures to get their nicotine fix.

“I don’t feel good about how I find cigarettes, it has turned me into a criminal. I have smoked for 15 years and never even tried to stop and now the government wants to force me. Do they really think it is that easy.  They are forcing law-abiding citizens to become criminals and it feels terrible. I am isolated at home, very bored at this stage and it increases my smoking appetite. I buy illegally, it is horrible cigarettes and I know that it is low quality, but I cannot get through this situation otherwise,” a 35-year-old woman said. “I cannot wait to smoke a good cigarette again… and have a drink to go with!”

“We have even driven to a town 50 km from here. I am not proud of it, but I just could not handle the added stress of nicotine withdrawal in the current situation. If I can’t smoke, we will definitely have domestic problems,” a 40-year old woman said. “If you want to, you will find cigarettes. Mostly terrible ones that are not good for you. There is still some ‘real’ cigarettes to be found, but the prices are unbelievable.”

“I get my cigarettes through social media. If you see a post hinting at smoking, you send a private message and make arrangements to meet. I feel like a criminal and you look over your shoulder all the time,” a 25-year-old man told Kormorant. “The stuff you get, is horrible, so it forces you to smoke less at least.”

There are even Facebook and WhatsApp groups for people who want to get cigarettes. And every smoker is extremely close-mouthed about his source. “You don’t even trust your buddy,” a 22-year-old said. “It just takes one person who talks too much and your source is gone. I will get cigarettes for a friend, but I will not tell him where I get it. This ban has brought out the worst in us.”

About 6% of South African women and 30% of men over 15 years old smoke tobacco daily according to the Department of Health’s 2016 Demographic and Health Survey.

The South African Drug Policy Initiative (SADPI) also called for the ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco to be reversed last month, saying that authorities have made a mistake with their decision.

In a statement, the SADPI said that the ban will be harmful to those suffering from substance use disorders, in that, should they need support, already-understaffed health services won’t be available to assist them. It said smokers, trying to get their fix will have to break the law and run the risk of being arrested.

Although it is an accepted and proven fact that smoking is harmful to your health, a recent study by  the Pasteur Institute, a leading French research centre into the Covid-19 disease, found that only 7.2 per cent of smokers from among the adults tested were infected while four times as many non-smokers, some 28 per cent, were infected. However, another study from China found smokers were 14 times more likely to develop serious so there is no scientific consensus that smoking can prevent or lessen coronavirus.

The University College London academics looked at 28 papers and found the proportions of smokers among hospital patients were ‘lower than expected’.  One of the studies showed that in the UK the proportion of smokers among COVID-19 patients was just five per cent. However, some studies suggest that should smokers become seriously ill as a result of Covid-19, they have an increased risk of severe complications and a higher mortality rate.

According to the World Health Organisation, smokers are likely to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 as the act of smoking means that fingers (and possibly contaminated cigarettes) are in contact with lips which increases the possibility of transmission of virus from hand to mouth. Smokers may also already have lung disease or reduced lung capacity which would greatly increase risk of serious illness.

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