Health Ministry Does Not Understand Gen Z — Subramaniam Munusamy

A more useful modus operandi would be for the government to regulate vaping, as well as better combat unlicensed and unregulated vape stores both physically and virtually throughout the country.

I am writing in response to the CodeBlue article Full Steam Ahead For The Generational End Game.

Over the past weeks, there has been much lobbying by certain civil society groups for Malaysian MPs to vote for the Tobacco and Smoking Control Bill that will be tabled in Parliament.

The part of the Bill which has caused the most stir is the ban it will mandate against the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to those born from the year 2005 onwards. This ban, in effect, is targeted against Malaysia’s so-called Generation Z, young adults who turning 18 years old next year.

There are, however, some ambiguities surrounding the legislation. Both the Health Ministry and the health minister have not really outlined how the ban is to be effectively enforced. For instance, will minors be fined for buying cigarettes?

How will the government stop the sale of cigarettes, or more commonly, vapes, on e-commerce sites to members of Generation Z? Or to halt their promotion via social media?

Will people born after 2005 who bring in cigarettes and vapes from abroad have such items confiscated upon entry to Malaysia? How will restaurants and shisha (or hookah) lounges be regulated to ensure they do not serve such products to members of Generation Z?

In fact, I believe that the Health Ministry does not understand Generation Z. It is true that many of them vape vigorously, but anecdotally, it is also true that the so-called “smokers” among them have ironically never touched a cigarette in their lives, and in fact, stay away from them.

For whatever reason, members of Generation Z find vaping more attractive, when compared to smoking. It is true the liquids and juices are sweeter, and more attractively packaged and marketed. These products specifically target the young. But it could also be that the youth implicitly realise that vaping is a less harmful activity than smoking, although this fact seems to elude their government.

At any rate, outright banning cigarettes and tobacco products will only make them more appealing to members of Generation Z, giving rise to the so-called “forbidden fruit” effect.

We have already seen how young cigarette smokers in Malaysia are already getting access to them despite the authorities’ best efforts. The danger is that the “generation endgame” will simply drive young smokers underground.

The vapers will then ironically be in peril, given that they may then be exposed to illegal or poorly-made devices or liquids, which are almost certainly extremely dangerous.  

I am not advocating giving up on efforts to combat youth smoking. Rather, outright bans and other punitive measures are counter-productive. People sometimes forget that they were young once.

A more useful modus operandi would be for the government to regulate vaping, as well as better combat unlicensed and unregulated vape stores, both physically and virtually throughout the country.

The government must continue to work with manufacturers to reduce the level of nicotine in cigarettes and vape liquids, as well as prohibit social influencers from promoting vapes, cigarettes, and other tobacco products on social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat.

It is instructive that Norway’s smoking prevalence among the young (aged 16 to 24) dipped from 12 per cent in 2010 to 1 per cent in 2020, although the country did not implement any form of tobacco ban.

The Norwegian Health Ministry found that education is the main explanatory factor for smoking prevalence. The lower one’s education, the higher the chance that one becomes a smoker.

At the same time, the use of smokeless tobacco among the younger population has also been increasing.

At the end of the day, smoking is driven by social factors. If friends, parents, and the family members of young people cannot steer them away from smoking, what makes us think the government can?

The generation endgame must be rethought. The government should not seek populist solutions, but instead focus on the real roots of the various problems facing our nation.

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

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