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Illicit cigarette trade in South Africa: 2002–2017
  1. Nicole Vellios,
  2. Corné van Walbeek,
  3. Hana Ross
  1. Economics of Tobacco Control Project, School of Economics, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa
  1. Correspondence to Nicole Vellios, Economics of Tobacco Control Project, School of Economics, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa; nicole.vellios{at}


Background Increasing cigarette excise taxes is widely recognised as the most effective measure to reduce the demand for cigarettes. The presence of illicit trade undermines the effectiveness of tax increases as both a public health and a fiscal measure, because it introduces cheaper alternatives to legal, full-priced cigarettes.

Objective To assess trends in the size of the illicit cigarette market in South Africa from 2002 to 2017 using gap analysis.

Methods Tax-paid cigarette sales are compared with consumption estimates from two nationally representative surveys: the All Media and Products Survey and the National Income Dynamics Study. We explore the size of the illicit cigarette market and its changes over the period 2002–2017.

Results Since 2009, illicit trade has increased sharply. We estimate that illicit trade is between 30% and 35% of the total market in 2017. The acceleration in the growth of the illicit market since 2015 corresponds with a turbulent time at the South African Revenue Service, when many of the enforcement functions were greatly reduced.

Conclusions The current levels of illicit trade are extremely high and need to be addressed urgently by implementing effective control mechanisms such as a track and trace system to monitor the production, taxation, and sale of cigarettes.

  • illegal tobacco products
  • low/middle-income country
  • advocacy
  • price
  • taxation

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  • Contributors NV and HR carried out the literature review. NV carried out data extraction, data analysis, and wrote the first draft. CvW assisted with the data analysis. All authors revised the manuscript and approved the final manuscript.

  • Funding This paper was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (through the African Capacity Building Foundation) (IRMA 20177).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement The All Media and Products Survey and the National Income and Dynamics Study are available on a portal managed by DataFirst at the University of Cape Town. The United Nations population data are available on their website. National Treasury and Department of Trade and Industry data are available on the Republic of South Africa’s website.