Study: Smokers try to quit as illegal cigarette prices surge 250% under lockdown

Some respondents reported prices as high as R300 per pack of 20 or R3,000 per carton of 200 cigarettes.


JOHANNESBURG - With South Africa about to enter its fifth month of lockdown and the sale of cigarettes still banned under official lockdown regulations, the 'new' prices of cigarettes are simply too high and are part of the reason why some smokers who took part in a recent survey have tried to kick the habit - with some succeeding.

This was revealed in a new study by the Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products (REEP) at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

The study is based on an online survey of 23,000 respondents done between 4 and 19 June 2020.

The study found that prices of cigarettes - essentially illegal cigarettes - have skyrocketed by up to 250%. The average price per cigarette was R5.69 or R114 per pack of 20.

Some respondents reported prices as high as R300 per pack of 20 or R3,000 per carton of 200 cigarettes. This is significantly higher than the 90% increase in cigarette prices observed in an earlier survey in May 2020 by the same research team.


A number of respondents (nearly 30%) said they had tried to kick the habit during lockdown. Of this group, 56% said the high price of cigarettes was their main reason, 14% said that they had tried to quit because they couldn't find cigarettes. Only 11% said that they did so because of the actual ban.

The study also broke down the numbers by demographics. For example, half of African females and more than a third of African males said they successfully quit smoking under lockdown. In contrast, fewer than 4% white males and fewer than 2% white females had done the same.

More than 70% of smokers who quit did so before 2 May 2020, during level 5 lockdown.


Of those who continued smoking, 93% said they had been able to purchase cigarettes during the lockdown.

Most had purchased cigarettes through informal channels, such as friends and family (27%), spaza shops (25%), street vendors (11%) and WhatsApp groups (8%) and formal retail outlets (0.3%).

Over half of all cigarettes bought by respondents in their most recent purchase were brands from three companies affiliated with the Fair-Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita), which is currently battling it out with government in court to lift the ban.

These companies are Gold Leaf Tobacco Corporation (26%), Carnilinx (14%) and Best Tobacco Company (11%).

"The tobacco sales ban during the lockdown has thrown the cigarette market into disarray. The market has completely changed. Whereas previously multinationals dominated the market, their share of sales has decreased to less than 20% among the people who were sampled. Most of our respondents have been forced to switch brands, a large proportion of which are produced by local manufacturers,” said Professor Corné van Walbeek, director of REEP.

“The fact that Fita, which primarily represents the local manufacturers, went to court to get the sales ban overturned is peculiar and ironic because our results show that FITA members have benefitted disproportionately from the sales ban. They have greatly increased their market share within the sample and have likely been making extraordinary profits, given their highly inflated prices.”

The average daily number of cigarettes smoked by continuing smokers decreased from 16.4 cigarettes pre-lockdown to 13.1 cigarettes in June.

More than a quarter of people who quit during lockdown indicated that they would start smoking again after the sales ban was lifted.


According to the study, the ban is not achieving its intended goal.

"The authors argue that the intention of the sales ban, in terms of smokers quitting and reducing spreading COVID-19 through cigarette sharing, is undermined by the fact that so many people are still smoking cigarettes and by the increased occurrence of cigarette sharing. They conclude that the extension of the ban beyond lockdown level 5 has been misguided, and recommend that the ban be lifted immediately."