Should Parliament Pass Tobacco Bill Now Or Defer To October?

The GEG measures should ensure that it is an offence to legally sell or supply tobacco or vape products to those born from 1 January 2007, but it should not criminalise possession or usage.

The Control of Tobacco Product and Smoking Bill 2022 being tabled for the second and third readings this week should be carefully considered, amended as necessary, and supported by Members of Parliament. 

The government must ensure that there are sufficient checks and balances in place to guard against overzealous and heavy-handed enforcement, misconduct, and prevent violations of human rights and dignity.

During the second reading, MPs should vote in favour of the Bill at the Policy Stage. However, the individual clauses and parts must be supported, amended or if deemed necessary, rejected at the Committee Stage. 

If the necessary amendments cannot be made in time for this session, the government should consider deferring the Bill to the next one in October.

The Parliamentary Special Select Committee (PSSC) for Health, Science and Innovation, and the PSSC on Women, Children and Social Development have both raised issues of concern, particularly Part IX on enforcement, and provided recommendations. Their bipartisan views should be considered seriously.

Under Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s leadership, history is about to be made, breaking 12 years of delays and procrastination. The Control of Tobacco Product and Smoking Bill 2022 covers new regulations governing both tobacco and vape, and introduces innovations such as the generational end game (GEG). It is legislation that is long overdue and much needed.

But the Bill must benefit from the support of as many Members of Parliament as possible. It must be robust, and its implementation deemed to be fair and transparent. This Bill, like many others in public health, is disliked by many, especially those in the tobacco and vape industries and retail. Therefore, MPs must strive to get this law right as best as possible.

The proposed generational end game (GEG) which aims to prevent individuals born from 1 January, 2007 from ever taking up smoking or vaping in their lifetime by prohibiting the sales of tobacco products and vape to this group should be supported and passed into law.

It is aggressive and ambitious, but it is a world-leading measure. If implemented properly and effectively, it will make a serious dent in smoking prevalence, and finally get control of vape, which is now fuelling the vaping epidemic among kids. 

It will save billions of ringgit in health expenditure and reduce the need for treatment of smoking-related diseases. Most importantly, it will help save the lives of thousands of Malaysians each year. This is a fact.

It is encouraging to see that the Bill proposes to regulate the vape industry in the same way that the tobacco industry is currently regulated, especially regarding advertisements, marketing, promotion, and sponsorships. This will help reign in and regulate vape which has gone out of control in this country.

However, the GEG is part of a larger Bill containing provisions related to enforcement and penalties which have now been subjected to review and scrutiny. Many issues have been raised including the possibility that this law could disproportionately affect young people, persons of lower income, and vulnerable populations.

A person addicted to nicotine, whether a smoker or vaper, has the right to be treated equally under the law, with compassion, and dignity. It is potentially open to injustice when a person in the GEG category is singled out for prosecution of possession or usage, especially when the penalties are potentially high.

The GEG measures should ensure that it is an offence to legally sell or supply tobacco or vape products to those born from 1 January, 2007, but it should not criminalise possession or usage.

When a comparison is made against Malaysia’s inspiration for the GEG, New Zealand’s Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Smoked Tobacco) Amendment Bill, it is clear that the latter’s legislation places the onus and burden on retailers, companies and corporations to comply and enforce their Smokefree 2025 goal. 

While it prohibits the sale and supplying of smoked tobacco products to a person born on or after 1 January, 2009, it does not penalise the latter individual for possession or usage. This is an important distinction to Malaysia’s Bill, which criminalises individual possession and usage for those in the GEG category.

The concerns regarding criminalisation are real and should not be trivialised or misconstrued. There is real risk and potential of abuse and misuse with long-term consequences. Smokers and vapers in the GEG category need to be supported and helped with the treatment of nicotine addiction.

We have learnt a lot from the past two decades in managing opioid addiction. What we found is that interventions that were grounded in and guided by human rights principles, real-world evidence, compassion and dignity, were the ones that produced results, and delivered on promised improved health outcomes. 

Those which were dependent on measures to punish and criminalise drug users ultimately failed. This is a fact. Criminalisation of self-harm should be avoided.

We are conflicted by the need to get this Bill finally passed, with the concerns raised by the Parliamentary Special Select Committees, individual MPs, public health specialists, and the public. 

This Bill comes at a time when there has been an erosion of public trust and confidence. This cannot be disregarded or ignored. Safeguards and amendments should be built within the letter of the law to address these concerns.

Azrul Mohd Khalib is the chief executive of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy.

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