Hard times ahead for cigarette hawkers-survey

More and more hawkers, who are still struggling to recover as a result of the hard hitting COVID 19 scourge, are headed for yet another turbulent period, as a result of the recent passing of the controversial Tobacco Control bill. This is according to a fresh industry survey.

The bill is seeking to curb consumption of tobacco products, but a set of clauses within the bill itself have sweeping changes on the way products will be sold, displayed and how they will be consumed.
One of the major clauses is the one which indicates that cigarettes can only be sold in packets, a process which will economically disenfranchise hawkers/SMMEs, as shown by a credible survey, which was recently conducted. A glimpse of a recent research done by Briggs and Associates, on the implications of the legislation, shows that, on average, 71.3 percent of revenue for most of hawkers comes from cigarette selling. Most, if not all hawkers, sell cigarettes on single units.

However, if President Mokgweetsi Masisi can put his signature on the bill to make it into law, cigarettes will now be sold in packages (minimum of 20 sticks), a scenario which will surely drag down sales for hawkers. According to the survey, single cigarette sales account for a massive 91% of sales for hawkers, mainly due to price points, ease of purchase and expendable income.

“Cigarettes are one of the major drawcards for casual shoppers. Due to the level of support provided to family, the loss of sales to customers buying single cigarettes will decimate this trade sector. The overwhelming responses are negative, and hawkers believe this will possibly close their businesses,” noted the survey. The snap survey was conducted on 114 hawkers out of a base of over 1800 hawkers based in the greater Gaborone.

Another major concern that is contained in the Tobacco Control Bill of 2021 is that, all traders of tobacco will now be required to have a license. The hawkers are of the strong feeling that, this clause will be the ultimate death knell to their already limping businesses. “The uncertainty about acquiring a license, how licenses will be allocated and costs of licenses has caused a lot of fear,” pointed out the report. The all powerful Tobacco Control Committee, which the players have been excluded to sit on, will over its implementation (if the bill is signed). The committee, will be made of mostly government representatives and a select health professionals.

One of the hawkers was quoted in the report as saying: "it means I can't sell cigarettes or tobacco products without license and if I can't afford the license, I lose my customers who pass by every minute." Another dejected hawker added: "It breaks my heart to see our government passing laws which disadvantage citizens.

Many of us rely on selling cigarettes, so please let’s all discuss this; don’t just conclude things without us who benefit from it." A call by the tobacco players to have the bill withdrawn on account of poor consultation has been roundly rejected by the health ministry. Instead, a World Health Organization proxy, Anti-Tobacco Network Botswana, was given a rare space on parliament floors to present on why the bill has to be passed against all odds.  Some sources are saying it is easy to connect the dots why ATN Botswana was given the space on parliament floors to push for the bill to pass, because President Masisi is a long-time Patron of the advocacy body, which the source of its funding has come under spotlight.

Despite hawkers playing a major role on creation of jobs in the country, government authorities have never consulted the sub sector when drafting the bill. According to the report, from a total of the 114 independent hawkers surveyed, only 60 percent of them admitting having knowledge of the Bill. However, they became aware of it after it was reading about it on mainstream and social media platforms. Moreover, if the bill is signed into law, there will be relative reduction of price. If cigarettes are only sold in packs of 20 or more, consumers will be forced to buy from formal retailers. This will mean they are purchasing for a cheaper unit price. This will mean that it will be cheaper to smoke, and so inevitably, people will smoke more, said the Biggs and Associates report.

In addition, there will be more unemployment, which Botswana cannot afford at this time. The country’s unemployment rate hovers at over 20 percent. However, other independent experts believe it could be more. “As hawkers are pushed into a situation where they are not making profit, they will be forced into unemployment.

Many hawkers are the sole supporters of their extended families, and additional loss of income will have severe economic and social repercussions for themselves, their families and society in a broader context,” noted the report. British American Tobacco Botswana, a stalwart in the sector is of the view that, selling cigarettes in packs will be disastrous given the country’s economic structure.  “Botswana is a highly informal trade economy – these are the current market dynamics. Informal traders make a living from the sale of cigarettes, which is mostly in the form of single cigarette sticks. There are livelihoods that will be impacted in this regard,” noted the report.

BAT Botswana, which sells over 300 million cigarettes sticks annually, also posits that, a ban on packs of less than 20 cigarettes could drive adult smokers who cannot afford these packs, to buy products on the illicit market. “Our respectful view is that focus should be on awareness campaigns around Youth Awareness Prevention,” they said in a position paper.

Furthermore, the company which pays millions of Pula in taxes to Botswana government has explicitly made it clear they support regulation of the sector. "As British American Tobacco Botswana, we are not opposed to any form of regulation for the tobacco industry. In fact, we support it! We believe that the regulation of our industry (or any for that matter) should be balanced, fair, implementable and evidence based with robust consultations across the value chain - this, we believe, can only be done through an independent and impartial Regulatory Impact Assessment Study,” Mdu Lokotfwako, Head, Legal & External Affairs, previously said