KUALA LUMPUR, March 1 – Government support for Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s radical plan to ban smoking for the next generation appears to be in question as Parliament sits.
The Ministry of Health’s (MOH) proposed Tobacco and Smoking Control Bill – which Khairy says will contain provisions to prohibit the sale of cigarettes, tobacco, and vape products to anyone born after 2005 – was not listed on the Dewan Rakyat’s order paper for today’s sitting.
The first Bill listed on the agenda is the controversial proposed amendment to the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342) for second reading that – according to the version published on Parliament’s website – raises compounds of offences to a maximum RM10,000 for individuals and up to RM1 million for businesses and organisations.
General penalties for offences under Act 342 are enhanced to up to seven years’ imprisonment, a fine not exceeding RM100,000, or both for individuals, as well as a maximum RM2 million fine for companies upon conviction. These proposed punishments for breaking Covid-19 rules — like not wearing face masks in public, being in a crowded space, or having a drink at a pub (still a prohibited activity during the pandemic) — are harsher than the maximum three-year jail sentence for attempted homicide.
Khairy’s Tobacco Bill was also conspicuously missing from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s royal address at yesterday’s opening of the first meeting of the fifth session of the 14th Parliament that omitted any mention of a “generation smoking ban” or an “endgame to smoking”.
The King’s Speech, which is prepared by the government, outlines the government’s legislative agenda and priorities.
“Is KJ alone?” former Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad told CodeBlue, using Khairy’s popular moniker.
“It takes real commitment from the Cabinet — a Cabinet led by the prime minister. The Minister of Health is only one of the Cabinet,” he added. “How many are willing to bite the bullet and take the bull by the horns?”
A new Act to replace tobacco regulations under the Food Act 1983 has been discussed for at least the past eight years from as early as 2014 to tighten control of tobacco products and to regulate e-cigarettes or vape.
Back in 2015, then-Rural and Regional Development Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is the current prime minister, reportedly said he wanted Malaysian vape products to be “world renowned”, as he urged Bumiputera entrepreneurs to continue producing “great flavours”, albeit without the use of controlled substances.
Several Bumiputera groups reportedly warned then-Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration that continued raids by MOH to seize e-liquids containing nicotine would cost Barisan Nasional (BN) electoral support.
“I am disappointed that the Tobacco Bill is not listed on the agenda. This is a setback going forward with regards to striving for a nicotine-free society in the future,” former Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye told CodeBlue.
“Furthermore, with taxation on vaping and e-cigarettes in the pipeline and in the absence of regulatory frameworks for vaping and e-cigarettes, it will open a floodgate for vaping and e-cigarettes!”
Even though the Tobacco and Smoking Control Bill was not listed on the Order Paper for today’s Dewan Rakyat sitting, the government can still put the proposed legislation on the parliamentary agenda anytime throughout the meeting or even table the Bill on March 24, the last day of the current Dewan Rakyat meeting, and attempt to pass it on the same day.
However, the lack of support from government MPs for the Act 342 amendment Bill – which was tabled last December 14, just two days before the end of the Dewan Rakyat meeting on December 16 – forced Khairy to pull the Bill from debate, despite getting an extra day for a special sitting on December 20 to try to whip up the votes.
Dr Lee, who is a member of the Dewan Rakyat special select committee on health, science and innovation, also told CodeBlue that he was surprised the Act 342 amendment Bill was on today’s Order Paper.
“We discussed it in the Parliament select committee when he was trying to push it through the last sitting. It couldn’t get through because there was no consensus and there was strong opposition even among BN MPs.”
Hence, the longer Khairy delays tabling the Tobacco and Smoking Control Bill over the next three weeks – which will reduce the time needed to debate and to make any significant changes to the draft law requested by MPs, possibly including government backbenchers – the slimmer his chances are to legislate the generation smoking ban.
Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy chief executive Azrul Mohd Khalib urged the government to have the courage, vision, and foresight to invest in people’s future health and wellbeing, instead of looking at the perceived short-term advantages of skipping the Tobacco Bill.
“It would be distressing if the Tobacco Bill is not tabled,” Azrul told CodeBlue.
“Malaysia’s smoking prevalence is 21.3 per cent. Implementing the generational smoking ban will not only enable Malaysia to finally make progress in reducing the number of new smokers, it will also make those reductions permanent. It will help reduce the number of people stricken with lung cancer. It will lock the gate against new smokers.”
He added that making nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products like the nicotine gum and patch available over-the-counter to support smoking cessation efforts would boost successful treatment of smokers and vapers for nicotine addiction.
“The vape industry is out of control and increasingly becoming a new problem. Contrary to vape proponents, the number of smokers have not decreased. However, the number of people newly taking up vape are now in the thousands,” Azrul said.
“Rather than replacing smokers, people who vape are fast competing smokers in population size. They are also younger. Even secondary school kids are now smoking vape. Vape must either be banned or regulated immediately.
“None of these problems can be properly addressed and overcome without proper legislation in place. We need the Tobacco Bill to be tabled and passed, if possible during this current parliamentary session. If not for us, for our children and the future generation of this country.”