No Turning Back From Tobacco Bill – Vasanthi Ramachandran

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits. Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky. It is the prohibition that makes anything precious.”

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits. Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky. It is the prohibition that makes anything precious.” – Mark Twain

The journey to a smoke-free nation vis-à-vis policy changes and legislation began when the hornets’ nest was stirred with the proposed Control of Tobacco Products and Smoking Bill 2022.

Though the Bill was not voted on during this session in Parliament, it was a battle won for the Ministry of Health (MOH), which has been spearheaded by a strategic, persuasive, and committed national anti-smoking campaign over the last few weeks.

Reverting to the status quo will not be acceptable after this. 

The campaign gathered momentum as the media, health experts, civic society, and ordinary Malaysians were exposed to the shocking data on smoking-related deaths, child vapers, and the damage to health resulting from smoking. 

The awareness in itself has a long-lasting impact on the recognition of smoking as a serious problem. What matters now is that the journey of a lifetime of smoking campaigns has been mooted. 

This brings us a huge stride closer to the ‘”generational end game” of smoking.

However, currently, the Bill has been referred to a Parliamentary Special Select Committee (PSSC) for further scrutiny within a month. A 13-member committee of parliamentarians has been set to look into the enforcement clauses and proposed penalties under the Bill.

It is not that easy to wean away a society addicted to smoking. 

Last week, a draft legislation was made available to MPs and the public, and they recommended a few concessions to the provisions in the Bill. 

In any country that imposes a smoking restriction, the table will always be unfairly tilted in favour of ‘political correctness’, and not wanting to infringe on individual rights.

I agree that enforcement should be based on an educational approach, and not a witch hunt for smokers. Strategies for practical and humane enforcement need to be put in place.

Undoubtedly, this is not about the MOH alone. Enforcement must be based on a multi-stakeholder and collaborative approach that includes the Ministries of Education and Environment, schools, parents, and the rakyat.  

Other critics have claimed that smoking bans are an infringement of personal freedom. 

One MP describes this as a “slippery slope” towards extinguishing personal liberties, and that it may eventually lead to the banning of other products.

“The individual liberty of a person in this country is extinct. Today you say it’s cigarettes, where is the promise that tomorrow it wouldn’t be for alcohol or gambling?” asked the MP,

If one is unable to take responsibility for his or her own health, and does not become an economic burden with a preventable disease, the value of “his or her own right” will indeed become questionable. 

The exposure of this Bill also shines a light on tobacco manufacturers and their indifference to the harms caused by tobacco use. 

The tobacco industry has malignantly grown for years, without accepting responsibility for related diseases. Big Tobacco has also corrupted science by sponsoring ‘decoy’ or ‘distraction research’. 

For decades, the number of Malaysia’s cigarette advertisements was among the highest in the world. The advertisements overtly introduced smoking into society, and politicians offered a fertile environment for tobacco companies to test new smoking marketing strategies in Malaysia. 

Smoking addicts have died because of the delusion that “there are some cigarettes which are safer than others”.  

Cigarette manufacturing not only consumes limited resources in its growing, curing, rolling, flavouring, packaging, transportation, advertising, and legal defences, but also causes harm from massive pesticide use and deforestation. 

Another objection commonly raised to counter any call for a ban is that this will encourage smuggling, or even illegal trade. But isn’t cigarette smuggling already rampant?

We live in a world where a billion lives are likely to die from the consequences of smoking or vaping. Partial bans all around the world are steadily increasing.

Countries like New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Tanzania, and parts of the United States and Canada are introducing legislation to curb smoking.

Ireland was the first country to issue a full ban on smoking at all workplaces. The tiny kingdom of Bhutan has completely banned smoking and the sale of tobacco, in spite of great opposition. 

If the Bill is passed, Malaysia will be the first country in the world to announce a decisive pathway towards legislation. 

Hopefully, all MPs take time to read the Bill with genuine interest, so that they can give valuable input with effective solutions to ensure that the next generation is not addicted. 

“We hope the PSSC will work fast on the Bill to fine-tune the Bill and the minister will be able to cement the process to ensure the work done is not scuttled if the 15th General Election happens earlier,” said Malaysian Medical Association president Dr Koh Kar Chai.

“It will be heartbreaking for many Malaysians if the Bill is thrown out, just because of a change in government.”

Constitutional implementation is only the beginning of a long road to curbing smoking on the ground. We have begun the journey. There is no turning back.

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

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