cigarettes
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  • South Africans have turned to some unusual cigarette brands from "value brand manufacturers" during the tobacco lockdown.
  • Some are reportedly not just illegal to sell, but also quite awful to smoke.
  • They could also, in theory, make you go blind. 
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.


South African smokers have turned to some gnarly, cheap locally made smokes to get their nicotine fix in the six weeks since the government banned the sale of cigarettes.

These weird and wonderful new brands are put on the market by what are called "value brand manufacturers". There are literally dozens of value brands out there for the unsuspecting South African smoker to choose from, including Caesar, F1s, Golden Flake, Ossum, Kingdom, Pacific Blue, Gold Mount, Sahawi, Navara, and JFK.

"Technically speaking, all cigarettes being sold during lockdown, regardless of brand, are considered 'illegal'. This renders the illicit trade in cigarettes under lockdown as 100% of the market," says Johann van Loggerenberg, the author of the searing exposé Tobacco Wars, about the illegal cigarette trade in South Africa.

Beyond being illegal, these economy brands tend to taste pretty awful too, or have other serious drawbacks.

Krugersdorp resident Cheryl Taylor Lubbe normally smokes Dunhill Fine Cuts, which cost her approximately R48 a box. After the lockdown, she managed to score a carton of Richman Blue for R180, which were "still acceptable and didn't taste horrible", although they "made my house seem blue with the smoke and the smell was terrible".

When she went back to her supplier, she learnt that the smokes were going at R450 a carton at illegal selling points, the same price as her Dunhills. So she switched to another knock-off brand called Voyager and discovered "why it's called 'Voyager' – because those smokes fly. I easily smoked forty cigarettes a day because I felt I wasn't getting my nicotine fix".

On top of that, the Voyagers "made my tongue feel and taste like I've been eating sour jelly babies".

So she switched to yet another shady brand called Cape Navy Cut.

"The box and the cigarettes look like the candy cigarettes you could buy in the 80s and 90s".

Welcome to the world of fly-by-night cigarette brands, under the table sales, and "severe headaches and sinusitis".

Cigarettes are illegal to sell. They are also everywhere.

Some cafes sell them outright, other places sell them out the back door, and if you are really brave you can buy a carton or two off your local "Nigerian drug lord," according to a Johannesburg source who gets her Sharps at R300 a carton and her Sevilles at R400 a carton out the back of a local cafe.

She admits that "Sharps taste like shit. They make my head feel thick every morning. They stink even more than my usual brand, which is Camel".

See also | If you smoke, prepare to argue cigarettes are a basic good – or go without during lockdown

Still she buys them, smokes them and helps others source them – something she refers to as a hobby in service of fighting a petty and unfair prohibition.

If you are going to try some downmarket cigarettes, you will probably be paying about three times the normal price per packet for them. But don't expect smoothness. A Muizenberg resident who didn't want to be named says: "They make your throat feel as though its been skinned. One of my friends developed sores all over her mouth from them."

She finally decided to quit smoking through the lockdown, "because I'm too terrified of being thrown in jail, and not because said cigs rip your throat out. I would happily live without a throat if I could smoke". 

Arsenic, lead, pesticides, and other freebies in illegal cigarettes

There are a few good reasons why these cut-rate butts taste so awful. Some of them are outright counterfeits that have been dropped into the illegal market by smugglers. Research has shown that fake cigarettes can contain arsenic, lead, mercury, pesticides, sulphur, dust, dirt, human faeces, ground up insects and even rat poison.

Fake cigarette makers often use out-dated machinery in unsanitary conditions to churn out smokes that look real, but taste terrible, and could be doing local smokers serious damage.

A research team in America discovered that counterfeit cigarettes are chock full of substandard tobacco, "tobacco waste", or even mouldy leaf tobacco.

The tar content in the counterfeit cancer sticks is usually much higher than what you get over the counter. And they can even contain "bemisia tabacai" eggs that, once inhaled, can hatch chronic parasites in humans, leading to "necrosis of the brain".

See also | All cigarettes are bad, but illegal ones are worse – especially right now. Here’s why

Bogus cigs can also wreak havoc on the human reproductive system and even cause loss of vision.

Up to 23% of the cigarettes smoked in South Africa before the ban were the value brands, including mock versions of real brands sold by unscrupulous retailers.

"In my experience of spaza outlets, most brands didn't pay tax before the lockdown [about R18.50 per pack last year], and now at R300 per carton I'd bet my bottom dollar that these brand owners haven't had a sudden change of heart and decided to chip into the Solidarity Fund," says Leif Petersen, co-director of the of the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation

Bad cigarettes are making people quit – in favour of smoking rooibos

Johannesburg resident Angelique Klawansky got her hands on a carton of Remington Golds for R500 and when she tried the first one in the midst of a nicotine fit brought on by the stress of the lockdown, she "inhaled it and nearly threw it on the ground. It was truly vile. Throughout the day, I tried a few more, they were as bad as the first."

So she traded with a friend for a pack of Savannahs, discovering upon lighting her first that "not only was there less menthol in there than a used spearmint gum, but it tasted disgusting”.

See also | Cigarette and booze makers are getting a R6 billion tax holiday to make up for lockdown

This, she says, "was the end of the line for me and my illicit smoking, I was done and rid myself of the offending items and have not looked back since”. 

Some people, like Capetonian Alasdair Fraser, have followed her lead and are rolling their own dried rooibos cigarettes instead of shelling for the phoney stogies. And dried chamomile cigarettes are rumoured to be useful as a sleep aid. Other South Africans who can't bear the taste of the illegal stuff that's available are rolling dried mint to get that elusive buzz.