Anwar: Let MPs Review ‘Overly Harsh’ Provisions In Smoking Product Control Bill

Anwar Ibrahim says the Control of Smoking Product for Public Health Bill 2023 received “many negative reactions” from MPs, who asked for a review of certain “overly harsh” provisions, as the PM maintained his commitment to tabling the bill in May.

KUALA LUMPUR, April 4 – Anwar Ibrahim today maintained the government’s commitment to tabling the tobacco and vape control bill in Parliament next month, but asked for patience to allow MPs to review certain provisions. 

The prime minister said the Control of Smoking Product for Public Health Bill 2023 – which has been briefed by the Ministry of Health (MOH) to both government and Opposition MPs pending its tabling in the Dewan Rakyat – had received “many negative reactions” from federal lawmakers, though not outright “rejection”.

“In principle, we will continue to table this bill, but we’re unable to do so because at the early stage, Your Honourable, we agreed to harmonise this bill with the tax on vape. But because there were many objections, we suggested that the health minister carefully renegotiate with MPs and all health bodies for the purposes of implementation,” Anwar told Kuala Langat MP Dr Ahmad Yunus Hairi during Ministers’ Question Time in the Dewan Rakyat.

“It’s not meant to delay, but to implement the bill this year itself, insya Allah, because this relates to what Your Honourable mentioned just now – so that there is understanding on a few provisions, especially about the implementation that is considered to be overly harsh. 

“But I feel that it is appropriate to give room to MPs to discuss this, whether in a parliamentary special select committee or others.

“However, at the current stage, the Customs Department will still control the distribution and I hope this bill can be tabled in the upcoming session in May. In the meantime, anti-vape and anti-smoking advocacy and public awareness campaigns should be increased.”

Anwar was responding to Dr Ahmad Yunus, a PAS MP, who had asked the prime minister to justify the government’s actions in exempting liquid and gel nicotine used in e-cigarettes from control under the Poisons Act 1952.

Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa exercised her ministerial powers last Friday to exempt liquid or gel nicotine as a Class C poison from the list of scheduled poisons under the Poisons Act 1952 to enable taxation on e-liquids with nicotine – overruling the Poisons Board’s unanimous objection to the government proposal. 

Anwar Ibrahim put into effect an excise duty of 40 sen per ml on e-liquids with nicotine from last April 1. The Ministry of Finance (MOF) has told vape industry players, particularly local manufacturers of e-liquids containing nicotine, to register their manufacturing activity with the Customs Department by April 30.

CodeBlue understands that the government changed the name of the Control of Tobacco Product and Smoking Bill 2022 – which was tabled by the previous administration led by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob in the 14th Parliament last year – to the Control of Smoking Product for Public Health Bill 2023.

The Control of Smoking Product for Public Health Bill retains the generational end game (GEG) provision that seeks to ban tobacco and vape products for anyone born from January 1, 2007.

The previous Dewan Rakyat special select committee on the tobacco control bill from the 14th Parliament, chaired by then-Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, had proposed renaming the bill to better reflect its public health purpose, among other changes.

The parliamentary special select committee (PSSC) had also proposed maintaining the prohibitions on smoking or vaping, or use of tobacco or vape products, for future generations, but opposed penalising possession. The PSSC also agreed to reduce the maximum fine for GEG offenders to RM500 from RM5,000, with possibility of community service.

Dr Ahmad Yunus today pointed out in Parliament that the cost of treating smoking-related diseases, estimated at RM6.2 billion in 2020, far exceeded the RM3 billion annual tax revenue collected from the tobacco industry.

“I understand, even though I’m not a doctor, I understand Your Honourable Kuala Langat’s complaints and there is truth to it and it is appropriate for us to take action to give awareness and to train, but taking a rather extreme action of prohibiting vape or nicotine cigarettes – that is rather drastic and is unable to be handled by any country in the world,” Anwar replied.

Although Singapore bans vape, Singaporeans reportedly continue to use e-cigarettes openly in the country.

“We will continue with this tax just to prevent this substance from being spread widely for cheap, and I agree with Your Honourable and all health care professional bodies – without exception, including doctors at home – who are strongly opposed to this,” Anwar said.

“But the government believes that at this time, prohibition is difficult, but we can increase awareness so that people can choose. There are ulama who make cigarettes haram, for example, but cigarettes are still commonplace. This has been a problem for thousands of years.

“That’s why we’re taking a rather moderate approach, which is to impose a tax but we are firm in prohibiting it in Parliament and schools – a sufficiently wide restriction to prevent society, especially the young, from vaping or smoking. That’s why we took this rather moderate approach.”

Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii from the DAP asked the prime minister at the Dewan Rakyat to give a “strong commitment” to the passage of the Control of Smoking Product for Public Health Bill in May “because we don’t want to sideline the interest of public health even though we want to collect tax”.

Dr Yii, who is an advisor to Health Minister Dr Zaliha, also suggested expanding the 50 per cent earmarking of the tax on e-liquids for the Ministry of Health (MOH) to all sin taxes, including tobacco taxes.

“I know that Your Honourable Bandar Kuching is extremely firm on this issue of cigarettes and vape. And I am of like mind because I also forbid smoking – smoking is completely forbidden in my house; that’s my wife’s instruction,” Anwar replied.

“As per your first question, will the government insist on introducing the bill, like what was stated by the health minister previously, the answer is ‘yes’. We have made a clear decision to introduce it. I apologise for the delay because many MPs have asked for a review of a few provisions, but not an outright rejection.”

Anwar said the government would consider Dr Yii’s request to expand the earmarking of tax revenue for MOH to other taxes.

The Malaysian Medical Association, the Malaysian Pharmacists Society, the Malaysian Council of Tobacco Control, as well as the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy have all protested against the exemption of liquid nicotine from the Poisons List, as this enabled the sale and marketing of vape and e-cigarettes with the highly addictive substance to children, due to the complete absence of regulations on such products.

Former Health deputy director-general (public health) Prof Dr Lokman Hakim Sulaiman has slammed the declassification of liquid nicotine, describing it as the “most ridiculous public health policy decision I have ever seen”, “almost nearing stupidity in policymaking”.

Malaysia currently has no regulations whatsoever on vape or e-cigarettes with nicotine, such as restrictions on sale to minors under 18; restrictions on ingredients, nicotine content, or volume of e-liquids for sale; labelling requirements and warnings; or bans on advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

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