The Absurdity of Smoking

By Azrul Mohd Khalib | 22 May 2019

Who knew that one day we would see a cigarette company selling life insurance?

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Last April’s launch of UK life insurer Reviti, a wholly owned subsidiary of Philip Morris International, marks a new milestone of absurdity in the story arc of the tobacco industry.

People who switched to e-cigarettes would be offered a 2.5 percent discount on Reviti insurance premiums. Those switching to Philip Morris’ heated tobacco product iQOS would receive a 25 percent discount. Those who quit smoking for at least a year would receive a discount of 50 percent. Reviti is already talking about expanding beyond the UK market.

Who knew that one day we would see a cigarette company selling life insurance?

It was twenty-five years and one month ago, on 14 April 1994, that the presidents and CEOs of the seven largest American tobacco companies were summoned to face the US Congress. The president and chief executive of Philip Morris at the time, William I. Campbell, was one of them.

They had been subpoenaed to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment. 

Despite more than six hours of questioning, the top tobacco executives refused to admit that they knew cigarettes were addictive. All seven men stated under oath that they did not believe nicotine was addictive.  

Targeting young people is a time-proven business strategy, especially when dealing with nicotine or sugar addiction. To quote a Philip Morris memo from 1981, “today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer.”

The tobacco industry has had a well-documented history of targeting young people for its products, especially in large developing markets such as China and Indonesia. In these countries, rather than following the global trend of decreasing numbers of new smokers and more people quitting, the prevalence of young smokers has instead been on the increase.

Almost 70 percent of Indonesian males smoke, one of the highest adult male smoking rates in the world, including 41 percent of youths between 13 and 15 years. 20 percent of adolescents have first tried cigarettes before the age 10. Packaged as a symbol of liberation, the industry is now targeting young Indonesian women.

In China, where a third of the population light up, 6.4 percent of youth smoke tobacco. More young men are becoming new smokers while women are increasingly either quitting or not taking up smoking altogether.

Which is why we should be concerned when Philip Morris and others like it are aggressively introducing e-cigarettes into Malaysia. Fundamental to the success of these products are new or existing young smokers. 

E-cigarettes range from heat-not-burn (HNB) cigarettes to heating a liquid containing nicotine, propylene glycol, glycerine and flavouring resulting in a vapour or aerosol (vaping).

The long-term health effects due to the heating of these chemicals and the toxins produced are still unknown.  

Findings from the Tobacco and E-cigarette Survey among Malaysian Adolescents 2016 (Tecma) have resonated and caused concern for many public health professionals: 36.9 percent of students start using e-cigarettes between the ages of 14 and 15; more young women are experimenting with e-cigarettes for the first time as compared to conventional cigarettes which are viewed negatively.

Because of their form factor which is often sleek and sophisticated, looking like cool USB drives or glowing pens, coupled together with messaging which claims that smoking e-cigarettes are healthier than smoking tobacco, these devices are a serious problem. They appear to be deliberately designed to attract and appeal to young users.

A recent China Press report found that Standard 6 students in Seberang Perai were using vape devices supposedly smoking fruit flavoured vape juice. However, it would be almost impossible to tell whether said juice had nicotine without testing it.

A common concern regarding e-cigarettes is the possibility of a “gateway” effect where users eventually end up developing a nicotine addiction and taking up smoking tobacco anyway.

The tobacco industry has touted heat-not-burn (HNB) tobacco products such as iQOS (Philip Morris), Juul (Pax) and Glo (British American Tobacco) as allegedly safer alternatives to cigarettes and as a harm reduction approach to smoking. 

What is actually happening is that the industry is simply switching one nicotine delivery device with another. 

There is little evidence that offering life insurance discounts to those who switch to other tobacco products or to those who quit would incentivise smokers to kick the habit. It’s just absurd and doesn’t make sense. 

Neither does allowing e-cigarettes into Malaysia when countries like Singapore and Thailand have taken a harm restrictive approach and banned them outright. What message are we sending?

If we must admit e-cigarettes into the country, they must be regulated as strictly as conventional cigarettes and imposed with similar duties. It could also be deemed as a prescriptive device. We must also close the legislative loopholes which have allowed for 12-year-old kids to have access to these devices.

We need to maintain our focus in working towards the creation of a tobacco-free nation.

Azrul Mohd Khalib is Chief Executive Officer of the Galen Centre for Health & Social Policy

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.
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