Step Up Tobacco Enforcement, Consider Harm-Reduction Alternatives — Louis Lam

Step up enforcement and consider harm-reduction approaches so that next year, our Chinese New Year reunions can take place in a more conducive surrounding.

This Chinese New Year (CNY), like many others, I was finally able to meet with my friends and relatives when I returned to my Simpang Renggam hometown. Last year, we were not able to do this, due to the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19. Inter-state travel was also not permitted last year.

The relaxed standard operating procedures (SOPs) this year meant that more physical reunions and gatherings took place, especially in restaurants and other eateries. But from my observation, Malaysians are still rather complacent when it comes to complying with Covid-19 SOPs when eating out. Many tend to linger longer than necessary at such places and do not wear their face masks properly.

We are letting our guard down at our own peril, especially with the Omicron variant threatening to push infection rates up exponentially, as experienced in many other countries.

But this CNY, I noticed another set of SOPs which Malaysians have blatantly disregarded: laws related to smoking in public spaces. Last I checked, eateries are still designated as no-smoking zones.

But in reality, the ban has been ignored with impunity as smokers callously puff away in restaurants and mamak eateries. Not only did smokers show no apprehension about being booked for breaking the law, many have no regard for the health hazards the second-hand smoke can cause on those around them.

To make things worse, many of us non-smokers tend to hang around eateries for prolonged periods during the CNY period to catch up!

Each year, more than 27,200 deaths in Malaysia are reported annually, due to smoking-related diseases. Since Covid-19 hit our shores in 2020, some 32,000 deaths have been reported here.

At the risk of playing down the severity of the coronavirus, fatalities due to Covid-19 has been on the decline. Meanwhile, smoking-related diseases have been on the rise, even before the pandemic, and will continue to go up, unless we do something about it.

Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin did the right thing by recently proposing that sales of cigarettes will be banned for those born after 2005. He wants to create a smoke-free Malaysia.

While I welcome the move, Khairy must also realise the gap between policy intention and implementation realities. The reality is that we can’t even effectively implement the no-smoking ban in restaurants. That being so, is it realistic to envision a smoke-free Malaysia?

Perhaps the Ministry of Health can start with baby steps. As a start, ramp up enforcement in eateries, and stop pussyfooting for the sake of political expediency. Another alternative is a phased-out transition through harm-reduction alternatives like heated tobacco products or regulated vape content.

The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom recognises the use of e-cigarettes to help smokers kick the habit. Though they are not harm-free, such products are definitely far less dangerous than conventional cigarettes, including with regard to second-hand smoke.

While I am appreciative of Khairy wanting to curb smoking to make Malaysians healthier, the health minister needs to be realistic. We don’t have to wait until 2023 for the ban on the sale of cigarettes for those born in 2005 or younger to take effect. Step up enforcement and consider harm-reduction approaches so that next year, our CNY reunions can take place in a more conducive surrounding.

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

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