Along with the ban on alcohol sales, the tobacco ban was one of the most controversial parts of the national lockdown.
However, a study published in the African Journal of Primary Health Care & Family Medicine suggests that there may have been a silver lining to the highly divisive period.
According to the study, authored by Piero Saleva and Louis S Jenkins, the ban resulted in a sharp decrease in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a common side-effect of smoking.
Saleva and Jenkins based their findings on data taken from George Regional Hospital in the Western Cape, comparing the number of patients with COPD from January to August in 2019 with the same period in 2020.
The number of patients admitted for urinary tract infections (UTI) within the same time frames were uses as a control group.
Overall, the researchers found a 69.28% decline in recorded COPD cases last year.
For comparison, UTIs decreased by 30.60%.
While the researchers acknowledged that the cigarette ban wasn’t the only cause for the drop in cases, they said “one cannot ignore these observations”.
One possible explanation for the decline, despite a UCT survey showing that 90% of smokers still bought cigarettes, was that the the government ban resulted in the cost of illegal cigarettes sky-rocketing.
“These cigarettes were bought at extremely elevated prices, with an average 20 pack of cigarettes costing R144, whereas prior to the lockdown 20 packs of cigarettes costed between R25 and R45, on average,” the report said.
This, combined with a rise in unemployment during the lockdown, could have forced smokers to reduce the amount they smoked which would have had a positive effect on their health.
“While it is possible that the lockdown per se contributed to reduced EC (emergency care) attendance and reduced access to tobacco outlets or social gatherings, the net effect has been reduced pressure on the healthcare system because of a decreased number of patients attending the EC and needing admissions.”