Huffing and puffing over cigarettes

It is easy to look at the cry for cigarette sales to be reopened as a cry from ordinary South Africans dying (no pun intended) out of nicotine deprivation. But it is not. It is the lobby of the cigarette industry in full motion.

And let me say it up front, there is nothing wrong with that.

American lobbyist, businessman and writer says it better: “Lobbying is not a bad thing. I am not trying to say that we shouldn’t have lobbyists or we shouldn’t have lobbying to petition our government. It’s in the Constitution, and it’s something that should be honourable and good.”

But that said, it is myopic and disingenuous to pretend the current pro-cigarette cacophony is unchoreographed and unpaid for. There is no smoke without fire. Pun intended.

It goes without saying that many South Africans are reeling in financial pain from the lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are very few industries will come out unscathed from this crisis. As a freelancer, I know the pain all too well. My feeder industries are all under lock and key.

You would however swear that the only industry suffering is the tobacco industry. The hospitality, travel, media, transport, construction, leisure, education, to some extent alcohol, and other industries have all but quietlt abided by the regulations as stipulated by government.

Millions of jobs are at risk because of the lockdown. It is not a privilege reserved for the tobacco industry.

South Africans have generally (there are notable exceptions of course) accepted that these regulations were for the good of all of us, even if it meant that our freedoms and rights to make a living have been taken away.

Let’s not beat around the bush: cigarettes are not good for humanity. It is therefore astounding how so many people – including some who publicly state they do not smoke – have come out guns blazing calling for government to reverse the ban on sales.

These “concerned South Africans” are not calling for the lift of the ban on trading by food vendors or say sporting activities. I am sure many other mouths are going to bed empty as a result of the restrictions on these sectors.

Which is why I believe that this is an orchestrated lobby. The cigarette barons have decided they cannot take the restrictions lying down. And they are entitled to that.

They are also entitled to their despicable and tasteless personalised attacks against Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. It is no secret that no minister projects their personal position in this matter. In fact, not even does President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Everything that has been communicated to us since March is the position of the National Command Centre and approved by Cabinet. Yes of course some ministers have made pronouncements based on their (perceived) prejudices. Finance Minister is even leading the Twitter Idols contest in showing how much he does not agree with his colleagues.

Singling out Minister Dlamini-Zuma for attack is wrong, but, calculated. And it betrays the involvement of the tobacco industry. She is accused of holding this view because she purportedly is in the pockets of the controversial Carnillinx Tobacco Company owned by the equally controversial Adriano Mazzotti.

So typical of lobby activity. It is not enough to drive your point home, it is also imperative to vilify your opponents. Again, I defend their right to lobby.

What I find lamentable is government’s poor or no response to this lobby. As usual, government is working from the position that it is right, and maybe righteous, and therefore does not have to defend itself or sell its position. Wrong.

In the game of public relations, you constantly have to manage perceptions. Your opponents, in this case the cigarette lobby, is busy creating negative perceptions, and if you do not manage those perceptions, more and more people will buy into the only view out there.

The cigarette lobby has created huge doubt. They have painted a picture of a country up in smoke, pun intended, just because cigarettes are not on sale. And government is not managing that.

Someone once said: “Believing that the world will be kind to you because you are a good person, is more like hoping that the bull won’t attack you because you are a vegetarian.”

Government must lobby us too, to demonstrate why its detractors are wrong, if they are. It must back its theory with facts. It must dismiss the allegations that it is doing bidding for Mazzotti or anyone purported to be selling cigarettes illegally.

As an aside, in the unlikely event Mazzotti is indeed behind government’s stance, then he must fund the governments PR campaign and lobby.

It will not help government to be angry at those that attack it, or insult Dlamini-Zuma. It sure does not do much to issue post facto statements decrying criticism and trying to show unity.

[Follow on twitter @ramsbythehorns]