“In South Africa, we have, like many other countries, a big percentage of the population who are not really in the position to make discerning choices, who don’t understand what the challenges are, and [are] just basically too busy in their lives to actually sit down and read each and every [food] label,” Neville Melville, consumer goods and services ombudsman, told CNBC Africa.
“I think a good model is the Consumer Protection Act, and they take the view that people should be given honest, reliable information, given all the information that they need to make a decision at the end of the day after weighing up the odds.”
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Products such as cigarettes, despite their proven harm on human health, are still available for the consumer. While cigarette packaging now indicates the harm to health, their availability for purchase, according to Melville, means that the consumer is still given the freedom to make an informed choice.
“There are different things that drive that particular demand [for cigarettes]. One of the aspects is it’s highly addictive. Once you’re hooked, the packaging isn’t really going to help,” Melvile explained.
“Particularly where we’re unsure of these things, then people need to be first of all educated [about] what the different interpretations are. There’s an information overload as it is.”
Leon Louw, executive director of the Free Market Foundation, however believes that South Africa’s consumer rights are under threat from government’s possible regulations, and that government should never dictate consumer choices.
“What has been happening is that a slew of regulations in all spheres of everything, from prohibiting medical insurance, to taxing sugar, to limiting the amount of credit people may enter into. Wherever you look, there’s just a sort of wide assault on consumer rights and consumer choices, and frankly consumer dignity,” said Louw.
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He added that the health sphere was the worst of all in terms of intention to regulate. This comes after South Africa’s minister of health, Aaron Motsoaledi, proposed the intention to regulate specific foods such as sugar, salt, fast food, tobacco and others.
“The way it’s going now, we’re soon going to have to have compulsory warnings on bread, potatoes and rice. The minister wants to limit the amount of salt people are allowed to have. [There is also a] ban on advertising [tobacco], which people take for granted, but we must understand that it’s not the right of the advertiser that’s the issue, just as it’s not the right of the publisher, it’s the right of consumers,” said Louw.