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Protecting our Human Rights: A call for rapid action on South Africa’s Tobacco Control legislation

Publish Date:

March 21, 2024

As we mark Human Rights Day 2024, we consider how the proposed Tobacco Products and Bill defends our right to health. South Africa’s health, research and community organisations have been calling for the passing of the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill, calling it a critical step to defend our nation’s right to health and interrelated rights. “As a signatory to the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), South Africa should be taking urgent action,” says Dr Sharon Nyatsanza of the National Council Against Smoking.

This comprehensive legislation awaits Parliament’s final approval, but has stalled at the Public Consultation process. Organisations including the National Council of Smoking (NCAS), the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), the South African Tobacco Free Youth Forum (SATFYF) and ATIM have joined forces under the Protect our Next initiative to campaign for the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill to become law.

Public consultations have been carried out in seven of the nine provinces by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health. Two provinces are yet to complete this crucial step – KwaZulu Natal and the Northern Cape. Originally due to take place in December, new dates have not been confirmed. In the South African environment where there is strong tobacco industry interference, the organisations question why vital consultations necessary for the Bill’s progression to law are not being expedited in this province.

Consultations must be completed for the Bill to pass into the next phase of oral submissions in parliament, deliberation and then going to the National Assembly for approval. If not concluded before elections, it is up to the next administration to decide to continue. “With elections in May, the clock is ticking as any incomplete consultations will leave the future of the Bill to the next administration’s discretion,” says Nyatsanza. “The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health must finish what they started.”

The Bill is a well-considered, comprehensive piece of legislation that has been in process for over five years, according to Nyatsanza. “Only the toxic tobacco industry argues and misleads the public to protect their profits. As we commemorate Human Right’s Day, we must remember that any delays in the passage of the Tobacco Control Bill would favour the tobacco industry, not the public health of South Africa.

Key measures in the Bill
The proposed Bill stipulates that all enclosed public spaces must be 100% smoke-free, extending this provision to certain outdoor public spaces as well. This guarantees protection for all South Africans who have chosen not to smoke but are often unwillingly exposed to harmful second-hand smoke. The Bill also introduces uniform plain packaging for all brands and graphic warnings on all packages.

While tobacco advertising and sponsorship are already illegal, the new Bill provides additional protection against deceptive marketing. The Bill ensures consumer rights are not violated, promoting awareness of health risks and protecting people from misleading advertising.

The sale of cigarettes through vending machines and advertising at tills will be banned, as these serve as a form of display advertising accessible to all ages.

“Research shows about seven in ten people who smoke want to quit, and fail to do so. They do not willingly continue to smoke, they are addicted. Policies that prevent the initiation of smoking by young people, protect those who do not smoke and create quit-friendly environments, safeguard our rights to health and freedom,” says Professor Lekan Ayo-Yusuf, Director of the National Council Against Smoking (NCAS) and the Head of the School of Health Systems and Public Health at the University of Pretoria. 

Importantly, the Bill brings e-cigarettes under regulation. Evidence has linked the use of e-cigarettes to serious health conditions such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, chest pains, and mouth ulcers.  “The top four e-cigarette manufacturers are major tobacco manufacturers, showing an industry continuing to maximise profits from both new and old products at the expense of public health and directly marketing to a new, youthful audience under the disguise of offering them a less harmful product,” says Ayo-Yusuf. “Failure to properly regulate e-cigarettes ignores the harmful effects of these products, and is a failure to protect our rights.”

Tobacco control can curb the influence that tobacco companies have on vulnerable groups such as children and women, according to Nyatsanza. “Human rights-focused legislation can protect vulnerable populations from the influential yet harmful tobacco industry, especially in countries with low-income and weaker public health governance.”

Lesego Mateme of SATFYF says tobacco use directly infringes on our rights to life, health, the rights of children and women, and our right to a healthy environment. “We have a right to health, and the new Bill defends this right and related rights. It’s high time we stand united against the forces trying to undermine it. Let’s amplify our voices and ensure the new bill that defends our right to health becomes law.”

To learn more, visit or follow @protectournext.

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