KUALA LUMPUR, July 13 – Muda president Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman has listed three major concerns with the government’s proposal to prohibit smoking and vape for future generations.
Syed Saddiq – the sole federal legislator in Muda that represents young people who would be most affected by the touted “generation end game” to smoking and vaping – acknowledged the rationale of the age-based ban in the Tobacco and Smoking Control Bill to save public health care costs from smoking-related conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
However, the Muar MP expressed worry that Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s radical proposal to prohibit the sale of cigarettes, other tobacco products, and vape to anyone born from January 1, 2005 would impact retailers’ business; affect personal liberty and create a slippery slope towards the ban of other products like alcoholic and sugar-sweetened beverages; and drive up illicit trade.
He told Khairy to answer his concerns in Parliament before Muda decides on whether or not to support the tobacco bill that is slated to be tabled in the upcoming Dewan Rakyat meeting, before the health minister presents the proposed legislation to the Cabinet this week.
“This issue should be debated in full and deliberated based on documented data and science,” Syed Saddiq told CodeBlue yesterday, when asked about Muda’s stand on the proposed cohort ban on smoking and vaping and whether he would vote in favour of the tobacco bill.
Besides the 29-year-old Muar MP from the Opposition, only Bintulu MP Tiong King Sing, a government backbencher, has publicly stated his stand on the tobacco bill, saying that he opposed smoking prohibitions for the next generation as he favoured public education instead.
CodeBlue understands that the bipartisan Dewan Rakyat special select committee on health, science and innovation, chaired by Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii, is currently finalising its recommendations on the tobacco bill, after multiple stakeholder engagements with medical experts, civil society, and representatives from the tobacco and vaping industries.
The Ministry of Health’s (MOH) proposed ban on smoking and vaping for those turning 18 next year and younger appears to be mainly targeted at prohibiting the sale of such products, as Khairy told reporters recently that individual possession of cigarettes or vape would not be criminalised with incarceration.
Currently, smoking and individual consumer possession of cigarettes or tobacco products is not illegal for those aged below 18; only the sale of tobacco products to under-18s is prohibited.
Small Retailers Hit, Business Closures, Job Cuts, Consumer And Investor Confidence Affected
The first issue Syed Saddiq raised regarding MOH’s proposed prohibition on the sale of tobacco and vape to the next generation – who would be barred from ever legally buying such products in their lifetime – was its impact on small retailers and businesses and subsequent run-off impact on job creation and the national economy.
He noted that cigarette sales are one of the larger revenue streams for small retailers and sundry shops, saying retailers have told him in meetings that the sale of tobacco products comprises roughly 25 per cent of profits.
“A complete ban will result in a great reduction of income for said retailers, which will have severe adverse effects on them, compounded by the already high and rising cost of living and the implementation of the minimum wage,” Syed Saddiq told CodeBlue.
“We need to consider that every cent that can be made by small retailers is important to them and we should not make their already difficult lives any harder.”
Squeezing the profit margins of small retailers, he said, would prevent them from hiring more workers and affect businesses and the economy “on a large scale” in the long run.
“The loss of tax revenue from the ban should be the least of one’s worries compared to the negative social and economic impact of business closures, job losses, destruction of economic capital, loss of consumer and investor confidence, as well as the expected rise in illicit activities.”Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, president of Muda and Member of Parliament for Muar
Khairy told a Generational End Game Advocacy Road Show (Gegar Wanita) event last week that annual revenue from excise taxes on cigarettes two years ago amounted to RM2.8 billion, nearly three times lower than the estimated RM8 billion cost in 2030 to treat just three smoking-related illnesses: lung cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
However, Syed Saddiq pointed out that MOH’s annual budget has risen over the years despite various smoking-related regulations.
“The entire argument of cigarettes and vape impacting our health budget doesn’t make sense since even with every imposition of strict laws and regulation, their budget keeps rising.”
The government first enacted the Control of Tobacco Product Regulations 2004 under the Food Act 1983 that instituted multiple smoke-free places in public, including public transport, shopping centres, air-conditioned restaurants, government premises, and airports, among others.
The 2004 regulations have since been amended nearly every year since 2008. The Pakatan Harapan administration’s prohibition on smoking in all eateries was gazetted in the 2018 amendment.
Besides smoke-free places, virtually all forms of tobacco advertising and promotion are prohibited in Malaysia. Tobacco packaging and labelling are also regulated with mandated health warnings on cigarette packs; plain packaging rules haven’t been legislated yet.
Tobacco products also cannot be sold via vending machines or the internet, or in the form of small cigarette packets or single cigarette sticks.
According to the Ministry of Health’s Malaysia National Health Accounts (MNHA) Steering Committee in a presentation on November 3, 2021, MOH expenditure nearly tripled from about RM10.7 billion in 2006 to RM30.9 billion in 2020.
Personal Liberty Affected, Slippery Slope For Racial Calls To Ban Other Products
The second concern Syed Saddiq had about Khairy’s proposed cohort ban on smoking and vaping was the “unnecessary precedent” it would create, leading to a slippery slope for racially charged calls to ban other products deemed unhealthy like alcohol.
The chief of Muda, a multiracial political party, cited a survey by the Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia (PPIM) that found the majority of 1,259 respondents didn’t just want cigarettes and vape banned for future generations, but also alcohol, sugary drinks, and even gambling and entertainment outlets like nightclubs, pubs, and karaoke joints.
New Straits Times (NST) reported PPIM chief activist Nadzim Johan, however, as saying that despite the survey results, PPIM opposed blanket bans over concerns of a rise in black market activity and criminalisation of consumers.
“This ban on tobacco and vape products will create an unnecessary precedent that is racially charged to call for other product bans,” Syed Saddiq told CodeBlue.
He pointed out that when the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government banned smoking in restaurants, including open-air eateries, back in 2019, the regulation was aimed at curbing the harms of secondhand smoke.
“A generational ban will, however, limit and stop individuals from actively partaking in tobacco consumption. Some may even argue that the right to smoke can be construed as a liberty right.”
Increase In Illicit Trade, Higher Spending On Enforcement
Syed Saddiq’s third area of concern was an expansion of the black market from a smoking prohibition for the next generation, pointing out that even without the generational ban, Malaysia remains the number one country for illegal cigarettes.
The Muar MP noted that every six in 10 cigarettes sold in Malaysia are illicit.
“People are more likely to hear of the brand John D Blend (an illicit brand sold at a price of RM6 to RM8) more than legal cigarette brands (sold for more than RM12).”
NST reported the Confederation of Malaysian Tobacco Manufacturers as saying last March that illicit cigarette prevalence in Malaysia dropped to 57.3 per cent last year from an all-time high of 63.8 per cent in 2020.
Syed Saddiq said traders of smuggled cigarettes would not comply with requirements under the tobacco bill or a ban on sales to those born from 2005.
“Only the illicit cigarette trade will benefit from this action and consumers will continue to use illegal products. One can expect black market sales and illicit activities to flourish even more from the generational ban on smoking activities.”
The Muda president attributed the wide availability of illegal cigarettes in the Malaysian market to high duties imposed on cigarettes.
“A ban will drive the contraband market share even higher.”
Syed Saddiq said a blanket ban on the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to future generations would necessitate higher spending on law enforcement.
“In a way, one can say that there might even be a bigger leakage in government spending.”
One Step Forward, More Than Two Steps Back
The young lawmaker called for greater efforts to develop a plan if Malaysia is serious about controlling tobacco consumption.
“Again, I understand the public health perspective of things, but we do not want to end up in a situation where we take one step forward, but then end up having to take two steps back, or in this case, more than two.”
When asked whether he would vote for the tobacco bill if vaping was removed from the proposed generation end game, Syed Saddiq reiterated that he still needed answers from the government to his three concerns.
Syed Saddiq’s former private secretary, who worked for him when he was youth and sports minister until February 2020, is currently serving in Muda’s disciplinary bureau while under employment in a tobacco company as its corporate affairs and communications manager.
When asked whether the person’s work had any influence on Muda’s stand on the tobacco bill, Syed Saddiq replied CodeBlue: “Biro Disiplin has nothing to do with this.”
Khairy’s touted generation end game to smoking and vaping, which he wants to enforce against the 2005 generation as a start in less than six months from 2023, is far more ambitious than a similar New Zealand proposal starting in 2027 that targets those born from 2008.
Unlike Malaysia, New Zealand excludes vape from its proposed ban on the sale of tobacco products to future generations, with its Health Ministry treating vaping as a tool to help smokers quit, stating: “Vaping is not harmless, but it is much less harmful than smoking.”
Even if Cabinet approves Khairy’s proposal to ban smoking and vaping for future generations, it remains to be seen if most Members of Parliament will support the potentially controversial Tobacco and Smoking Control Bill, as Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s administration has a slim majority in the Dewan Rakyat and votes from government backbenchers may not be fully assured.