Expert Moots MySejahtera QR Code To Buy Cigarettes

Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy CEO Azrul Mohd Khalib says a QR code can be generated on MySejahtera only for users born before 2005 to purchase tobacco products.

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 28 – A health care analyst today proposed the use of QR codes on MySejahtera to operationalise the government’s proposed generational smoking ban on everyone born after 2005.

Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy chief executive Azrul Mohd Khalib said a QR code could easily be generated through the ubiquitous government Covid-19 mobile app — which currently has at least 27 million registered users — allowing retailers to scan and quickly verify that the bearer is legally permitted to purchase tobacco products. 

“The QR code will only be generated for those born before 2005,” Azrul told CodeBlue when contacted. 

“Using the application, the user can also track their own cigarette consumption based on the number of times that they purchase cigarettes, giving real-world data which would help smokers if they wish to quit smoking. It is doable today.”

He said he does not support requiring identity cards to be furnished before one can buy cigarettes and tobacco products.

Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin yesterday announced at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) executive board meeting in Geneva about Malaysia’s plans to prohibit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to people born after 2005 in a bid to outlaw smoking for the next generation.

This means that Malaysians who are 17 years old today would not be able to legally buy tobacco next year when they turn 18, the current legal age for smoking in Malaysia, or ever, in their lifetime. Neither will subsequent generations be ever permitted to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products. 

Hence, the present method of displaying posters on the prohibition of the sale of tobacco to under-18s would not work, since people born in 2005 would still be prohibited from buying cigarettes when they’re aged 30 in 2035 or 50 in 2055. 

Khairy previously said he planned to table a new Tobacco and Smoking Control Act in the upcoming Parliament meeting that will not just regulate e-cigarettes and vaping products, but also ban smoking for future generations.

The statement has so far drawn plenty of scepticism from the public on whether the government can effectively implement the policy.

Azrul said the proposed generational smoking ban policy is viable but will require a lot of political will, public support, and better health education in Malaysia.

“To see how tough it is going to be, compare Malaysia with New Zealand, which is leading this bold approach. The adult smoking prevalence in New Zealand is at 13.4 per cent while Malaysia is at 21.3 per cent. Singapore, which is also considering the same strategy, is around 10 per cent. 

“By doing this, Malaysia has the potential to make an unprecedented massive positive leap in tobacco control, drastically locking the gate against new smokers. It will bring those numbers down,” Azrul said.

However, he noted that the challenges to implement the policy will be formidable, even for countries like New Zealand and Singapore. 

The 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey found that the highest prevalence of current smokers was among men of 30-34 years of age at 49 per cent. About 48 per cent of men aged 40 to 44, or aged 20 to 24, currently smoke. 

It was also pointed out that 40.5 per cent of men and 1.2 per cent of women in this country aged 15 years and older currently smoke, amounting to some 4.9 million smokers. 

“What this tells me is that enforcement will need to be stronger and more effective than ever before to beat back against the illicit tobacco market. Unfortunately, based on our track record, this is where we are most likely to fail. 

“For this policy to succeed, we must weed out corruption among law enforcement officials involved in curtailing the illegal market and reduce the flood of illicit tobacco into the country,” Azrul said.

Last month, New Zealand announced plans to ban the sale of cigarettes or tobacco products to anyone born after 2008 in a law expected to be enacted this year. New Zealand’s proposal, starting in 2027, will progressively raise the legal smoking age from 18 every year, allowing existing smokers to continue to buy cigarettes, but effectively making tobacco products unavailable to everyone born after 2008.

Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Health Dr Koh Poh Koon earlier this month said that the city state was “open to the idea” of a cohort smoking ban.

However, Dr Koh noted that Singapore’s bigger challenge is the use of e-cigarettes, which are still tobacco products, as young people in Singapore do not generally take up smoking.

While New Zealand has announced a cohort smoking ban, it promotes vaping as an alternative to smoking, which Dr Koh described as “still harmful”.

Khairy’s office told the press earlier today that the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) proposed ban on tobacco for those born after 2005 covered not just cigarettes, but also vaping products and e-cigarettes.

When asked about the government’s proposed tax on vape and e-cigarette liquids containing nicotine, essentially legalising vaping that is currently in a grey area of regulation, Khairy’s office told the media to wait for the Tobacco and Smoking Control Bill to be tabled in the Dewan Rakyat.

In addition to the generational block, Azrul said the government should also consider raising the legal age for smoking to 21, harmonising it with the current legal drinking age, and similar to what the New Zealand government is proposing. In 2017, the Barisan Nasional government was planning to raise the legal smoking age to 21.

“Eliminating cigarettes is the first step to total freedom from tobacco and nicotine. What has worked are easy and hassle-free access to proven and evidence-driven interventions such as nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) such as nicotine gum, patches, and inhalers which involve the slow delivery of nicotine, while reducing cravings and the severity of tobacco withdrawal symptoms. In New Zealand, these are available over the counter.

“We need to make NRTs easily available over the counter so that smokers who want to quit can easily get them without needing a prescription or needing to see a pharmacist. Just get them like you are buying panadol, minyak cap kapak, or tiger balm, at the checkout counter,” Azrul said.

When asked if the legislation will be easily passed, Azrul commented that it will be hard going but the bill “must pass” in order to have a better future for the people in Malaysia.

“The Covid-19 crisis has shown that Malaysians in general are in a state of poor health, made more vulnerable to the coronavirus than most populations due to high prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs). 

“Many of the parliamentarians are smokers. Some are trying desperately to quit. This ban will not only help Malaysia to be on track with global trends of reducing cigarette consumption, but also help imagine a future without cigarettes,” Azrul said.

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