The ban on cigarettes has simultaneously baffled my mind and put it in distress, and the evil last minute snatching away of the lift of the ban has completely torn my mind to shreds.

Imagine a constant knocking on your door but you can’t physically get up to see who is knocking and every time you scream “who’s there?” no one answers but the knocking continues. Incessant, unrelenting knocking with no end in sight. That’s what it feels like to be addicted to nicotine during the national lockdown with a ban on cigarette sales.

I took my first puff of a “gwaai”, as we would call it, in grade four with some of my friends who, as naughty kids, experimented with big people’s stuff. My smoking habit grew and became a permanent feature in my life by grade six. My habit was fed through discreet access to my aunt’s stash. I would even go as far as taking her leftovers from the ashtray or sometimes even the dustbin because she would only smoke half and then pull out a new one. My parents and aunts were infuriated when they found out that I smoked (I was outed by my very gracious older sister) and I found myself grounded multiple times. But that just made me sneakier in feeding my habit. My addiction became an itch that needed constant scratching and it has remained that way ever since.

A day before the lockdown started on March 26, Minister of Industry and Trade, Ebrahim Patel, announced that cigarettes would not be sold because they were not an essential item. Smokers were not given adequate time to prepare for the ban on sales and those who could, flooded shops before the lockdown to stockpile cigarettes increasing the chance of coronavirus infection. Those who were lucky enough to have the money at the time were able to do this with a carton priced at roughly R350. However, smokers that could not afford to buy two or three cartons were then left to deal with the consequences of being forced to go cold turkey.

The unconvincing reasoning behind the ban was that it cigarettes are not an “essential” or “basic” need, but my local Checkers has filled up the  emptied out the cigarette kiosk with chocolate bars. This angered me every time I went to Checkers because I would ask myself “how are chocolate bars considered an essential or basic need and cigarettes are not?”

Chocolate bars fill the kiosks previously stocked with cigarettes at a Checkers amidst the ban of cigarette sales during the Covid-19 lockdown. Photo: Zainab Patel

The lockdown was then extended on from April 16 leaving people unprepared for the two weeks to follow. This caused panic and anxiety amongst smokers stressing about where we would get our next fix. It takes over your entire being. I had only prepared for the initial 21 days and now this added stress consumed my time and messed with my sanity unnecessarily.

According to Healthline, a medical website, there are a wide range of effects that nicotine has on the brain such as mood boosting, reducing depression, reducing irritability, enhancing concentration and short-term memory, producing a sense of well-being, and reducing one’s appetite. These are all essential for mental stability during the lockdown which is already a stressful time and smoking is the only thing keeping me at least mildly sane during this period. Smoking for most people, including myself, is also a coping mechanism. Taking that away when the person did not choose to stop smoking is detrimental to their mental health.

This is an addiction that is rarely taken seriously. Nicotine is as addictive as heroin and cocaine. Forced abstinence during the lockdown could lead to major physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms, including irritability or frustration, low mood, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, and mood swings. The physical symptoms can include headaches, sweating, restlessness, tremors, difficulty sleeping, waking at night, increased appetite, abdominal cramps, digestive issues (including constipation), and difficulty concentrating. “People who quit cold turkey usually have worse symptoms than those who take a cohesive approach, with counselling, support systems, and smoking aids (including nicotine replacement therapy),” said Terry Martin in an article on the 7 Symptoms of Nicotine Withdrawal.

Now try being confined to the same space over a prolonged period of time with someone experiencing these symptoms  – it is horrible for everyone involved. I know how I start to behave with cigarettes and it is far from pleasant. I get very agitated and prone to anger, snapping at the smallest of things. I also know that I would do anything to get just a puff of a cigarette and that is a huge problem when trying to stay safe and within the law during the lockdown.

With trying to keep us locked in with no cigarettes, the opposite effect has transpired with smokers actively seeking out cigarettes. The black market, as a result, have taken advantage of this addiction by selling harmful counterfeit cigarettes for double, sometimes triple, the price. Stories are coming out almost daily about the confiscation of these illicit cigarettes worth millions.

I keep questioning why this ban was instated and have found no logical answers. All I know is that the ongoing ban on the sale of cigarettes has left my heart palpitating furiously, my skin burning with anger and my entire being overcome by heartbreak. Nothing that a “skyf” won’t sort out though.

FEATURED IMAGE: The reinstatement of the cigarette ban announced on Wednesday, April 29, has left me with uncertainty on how I am going to deal with my cravings and withdrawal symptoms once I run out of cigarettes rationing every bit I have so I don’t go insane. Photo: Zainab Patel