How The Government Can Equip Smokers With The Tools To Quit

The government’s goal to reduce smoking prevalence in Malaysia to 15% by 2025 can be achieved if it also empowers smokers desperate to kick the habit with the tools they need.

The government’s plan to ban the sale of tobacco products to people born after 2005, in a bid to ultimately phase out smoking, should also include other tobacco reduction measures to maximise effectiveness.

Public health experts and lawmakers have proposed a number of other measures aside from the ban, especially in making nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) easily accessible.

In New Zealand, which announced plans to prohibit the sale of cigarettes tobacco products to people born after 2008, NRT products are available for purchase over-the-counter (OTC).

NRT products like inhalers and mouth spray can be bought at supermarkets or pharmacies without any prescription, while patches, gum, and lozenges are subsidised so they can be obtained cheaply or for free at community pharmacies.

In Malaysia, NRT products like the nicotine patch or gum are only made available through dispensing by pharmacists and doctors, instead of OTC. NRTs help smokers reduce their urges to smoke and withdrawal symptoms associated with smoking cessation by replacing the nicotine from cigarettes.

Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy chief executive Azrul Mohd Khalib found it absurd that people cannot easily purchase nicotine patches or gums to help them give up smoking, as they can with cigarettes.

Former deputy trade minister Ong Kian Ming, who is Bangi MP, has equally called for more options to help existing smokers reduce their tobacco consumption, including making NRTs more widely available.

Others like Prof Dr Mohamad Haniki Nik Mohamad, who has been providing smoking cessation services for nearly two decades, affirmed that a combination of behaviour and pharmacological interventions would yield the best results to help people quit smoking.

The Ministry of Health’s JomQuit programme lists NRTs, particularly the transdermal patch and oral gum, as quit-smoking aids. mQuit services comprise a quit-smoking plan and the use of quit-smoking aids.

A public poll conducted by CodeBlue and Galen recently found that 82 per cent of 322 respondents believe that the government could encourage smokers to quit by making nicotine replacement therapies easily accessible.

The two-week survey, aimed at gauging public opinion on the government’s plan to outlaw smoking for the next generation, also found 152 respondents saying they attempted to quit smoking in the past 12 months, including 27 who don’t currently smoke or vape. 

Nineteen others tried to quit smoking more than 12 months ago, bringing the total to 171 respondents with some experience of attempting to quit smoking.

Of the 171 respondents, 48 per cent went cold turkey on their own. About 33 per cent said they joined a quit-smoking programme or got help from a professional, while 19 per cent opted to use smoking cessation products such as the nicotine gum and patch.

Among 103 respondents who currently smoke cigarettes, 77 per cent tried to quit smoking within the past year, and among 142 respondents who use e-cigarettes or vape, more than 75 per cent also attempted to quit in the past 12 months.

Malaysia’s tobacco use prevalence has been declining over time – down from an estimated 29.6 per cent in 2000 to 22.8 per cent in 2015. However, between 2015 and 2019, the country’s smoking rates have barely dropped, falling by only 1.5 percentage points from 22.8 per cent in 2015 to 21.3 per cent in 2019 among individuals aged 15 years and older.

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global report on trends in prevalence of tobacco use 2000-2025 (3rd edition), the prevalence of tobacco use in Malaysia is expected to drop to 19.6 per cent by 2025, still short of the country’s 15 per cent goal under the National Strategic Plan for Non-Communicable Disease 2016-2025.

A new legislation to ban smoking for the next generation can only help the government reach its goal of cutting smoking prevalence in Malaysia to 15 per cent by 2025 – but it can do better if the law also empowers smokers desperate to kick the habit with the tools they need.

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