The Illicit Cigarette Market in Six South African Townships (2020)

Authors: Kirsten van der Zee et al.


Background: We estimate the size of the illicit cigarette market in low socioeconomic areas in South Africa before and after a tax increase. In 2018, the real excise tax increased by 3% and the value-added tax (VAT) rate increased from 14% to 15%. Thus, the real tax on cigarettes increased by 4%.

Methods: A total of 2427 smokers were interviewed over two rounds of data collection (1234 before the tax increase and 1193 after). Data were collected in six townships across four of South Africa’s nine provinces. Smokers were asked about their most recent cigarette purchase. Cigarettes purchased for R1 (US$0.08) or less per stick are presumed illicit, based on a threshold price, which includes production costs and taxes.

Results: In 2017 and 2018 respectively, 34.6% and 36.4% of smokers in the sample purchased illicit cigarettes. The increase in the proportion of illicit purchases was not statistically significant. Smokers with relatively low socioeconomic status, those who have low levels of education and those who are older or unemployed are most likely to purchase illicit cigarettes.

Conclusions: The illicit cigarette trade in South African townships is widespread. The government should implement an independent track and trace system to curb tax evasion. This would reduce the availability of illicit cigarettes, improve public health and increase excise tax collection.

Read more: Tobacco Control