KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 27 – Influential youth group Undi18 has urged the government to consider postponing the proposed generational tobacco ban to those born from 2023, instead of starting with the 2007 cohort.
Undi18 co-founder Tharma Pillai pointed out that those born from 2007, who are aged 15 or younger today, may have already formed personal opinions or wishes to smoke in a country that has normalised the behaviour.
“So I think it’s unfair for us to take away their rights without trying to change the culture in society,” Tharma said in a joint discussion titled “Is the GEG Act in line with the Constitution?” with lawyer Mohamed Haniff Khatri Abdulla that was broadcast on Undi18’s Facebook page last night.
Tharma said minors continue to smoke even though current tobacco regulations prohibit those aged under 18 from smoking.
“If we don’t change the culture and normalisation of smoking, starting with the 2023 generation and above, which I think is more suitable, I’m afraid that attempts to ban the 2007 generation and the following generations from smoking will not succeed.
“Instead, they will lose access to regulated cigarettes, or cigarettes that may be safer or vape as an alternative. I’m not saying that cigarettes are safe, but [legal cigarettes] are safer than smuggled cigarettes, of which we don’t know what’s in the content.
“So I’m afraid that the ones who will benefit the most are criminals and smugglers. And we won’t get a generational end game (GEG) – we’ll get a ‘Generation Gudang Garam’, GGG.”
Gudang Garam is an Indonesian cigarette brand.
Tharma cited industry claims that 60 per cent of cigarettes sold in Malaysia are illicit.
Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin plans to re-table the Control of Tobacco Product and Smoking Bill 2022 – which aims to prohibit tobacco and vape for anyone born from January 1, 2007 – for debate in the upcoming parliamentary meeting that begins next week on October 3.
If passed, the government aims to implement the GEG from 2025, which means that those born from 2007 will not be able to legally smoke, or purchase tobacco or vape products, even when they turn 18, the current legal smoking age.
Haniff Khatri – who is representing a group of seven individuals that is seeking to quash the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) earlier decision to ban smoking at eateries, including open-air restaurants – said that a smoking prohibition on those born from 2007 is arguably discriminatory and in violation of Article 8 under the Federal Constitution that guarantees equality before the law.
He explained that this is because the 2007 cohort already exists, but the tobacco bill is seeking to prohibit this group, unlike others born before 2007, from smoking when they turn 18.
“This is a group that has different rights from other children. Isn’t that discrimination within the same group? That’s the question,” said the senior lawyer.
“So I suggest that we implement the ban after the bill is passed. If this bill is expected to pass into law in 2023 before December 31, then we ban it for the next generation born from January 1, 2024.
“We don’t want the GEG 2022 to fail because of a valid challenge in court.”
The lawsuit against the eatery smoking ban, in which Haniff Khatri is representing the plaintiffs, is scheduled for a decision by the Court of Appeal on November 23.
Haniff Khatri complained that smoking areas are illusory in Malaysia now and that smokers’ rights are increasingly being violated.
“In that case, we stressed on balancing the rights of smokers with the rights of non-smokers,” he said, referring to the legal challenge against the smoking ban in restaurants.
“If a restaurant wants to designate special areas for people to eat or to smoke, the government cannot create a law that stops them from exercising their rights as long as it doesn’t affect the rights of non-smokers from eating and drinking in a smoke-free environment.”
‘War On Tobacco’ Victimises The Poor
Tharma expressed concern that enforcement of the generational tobacco ban would disproportionately affect the bottom 40 per cent (B40) and low-income children and youths.
The youth leader pointed out that Malaysia’s narcotics prohibition has led to the incarceration of low-income people who often cannot afford good lawyers when they are arrested for smoking marijuana.
“For most of them, their lives are destroyed and they can’t work,” he said.
“We must look at the socioeconomic context in drafting legislation. After failing the war on drugs, now we’re starting a war on tobacco that will also victimise the poor. We don’t have a broader policy to address the normalisation of drugs and cigarettes, but yet, we still pick the easy way and claim that we succeeded.”
Haniff Khatri noted that while the tobacco control bill has been sent to a newly formed parliamentary special select committee (PSSC) for review, there is a parliamentary caucus currently looking at decriminalising cannabis for medical purposes.
“In 2022, there are studies to ban cigarettes, but there are also studies to permit drugs. Does this make sense?”
Tharma questioned if the government had consulted health, child, or constitutional or legal experts outside government, including the Bar Council, or even children or young people themselves who would be directly targeted by the tobacco and vape GEG.
“Do young people or children have a voice? Are they considered a stakeholder that must be taken into account, or are their voices completely ignored?”
Haniff Khatri pointed out that despite the formation of the bipartisan PSSC to review the tobacco bill after it was pulled from debate in the last Dewan Rakyat meeting, the parliamentary committee has not made any announcement for the general public to provide feedback on the proposed law.
“If the GEG is delayed to the 2024 generation…in the next 20 years, society can be educated on why smoking is bad, then they’ll accept criminalisation and it won’t go to GGG – Generasi Gudang Garam. It’s one generation, you have enough time to educate.”