GENEVA, May 26 – The deregulation of liquid nicotine in Malaysia was highlighted recently at the 76th World Health Assembly (WHA), the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), in Geneva, Switzerland.
CodeBlue editor-in-chief Boo Su-Lyn told a WHA event that the Malaysian government effectively legalised the sale of e-cigarettes and vape products with nicotine to everyone, including minors aged below 18 – without any regulations whatsoever – after the removal of liquid nicotine from control under the Poisons Act 1952.
“As the media, we reported that. And the medical fraternity then used our reports, CodeBlue reports as well as other mainstream media reports, to highlight the dangers of vape and to oppose the decision to completely deregulate liquid nicotine.
“So that’s the role of the media,” Boo said at a panel discussion titled “Meeting people where they are: Understanding public perceptions of non-communicable diseases”, organised by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the WHO last Saturday at the 76th WHA in Geneva.
Hania Farhan, the senior director of research and methodology at global analytics firm Gallup, presented the results of an international survey by Gallup that was conducted in late 2021 and early 2022 on people’s perceptions of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) across five countries: Colombia, India, Jordan, Tanzania, and the United States.
Among others, the Gallup poll found that the majority of respondents – an average across the five economically and culturally diverse countries – supported health-related policy measures, including higher taxes on tobacco products and prohibitions on smoking in public places.
“What do you make of that when you hear that Malaysia has suddenly introduced something that is so counter to what you’ve been finding in your report?” moderator Hannah Vaughn Jones asked Hania at the panel discussion.
“It’s surprising, in the sense that – what I’m saying is based on the research and data that people are telling us – people are smart; they know what’s good for them, they know what’s bad for them. They just need a nudge,” Hania responded.
“Regulation is essential. Public health officials – what they do and say really makes a difference.
“I am surprised when you say there’s no regulation. I didn’t know that,” Hania told Boo. “People support regulation. That means you can actually go further as a policy person and don’t worry too much about these things.
“The power of the industry – I’m guessing that there’s been a lot of lobbying in Malaysia. Am I right? I don’t know – like I said, there’s this wall of money coming in; there’s tax benefits et cetera that are thrown as carrots.”
Jones said, “One can only assume that the commercial side of this is what’s been the driving force, rather than actually listening to your electorate, listening to the people.”
Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa, in an interview with CodeBlue at the sidelines of the WHA, explained that the government deregulated liquid nicotine last March 31 to enable taxation of e-cigarette and vape liquids with nicotine by April 1 – but with an eye to push a tobacco and vape control bill through Parliament “as soon as possible”.
She added that Cabinet is meeting today to discuss whether or not to approve the Control of Smoking Product for Public Health Bill 2023 – which contains a generational ban on tobacco and vape products for anyone born from 2007 (known as the GEG) – for tabling in the current Dewan Rakyat meeting.
The New Straits Times (NST) reported last March 31 that an industry player sent a letter last February 22 to Deputy Finance Minister Steven Sim to immediately regulate the vape industry without waiting for the passage of the tobacco and vape control bill.
NST also reported that the Finance Ministry had sent at least two letters to push for the Health Ministry’s support to legalise the nicotine vape industry.
Boo asked Hania if the Gallup research found that people across countries, including Asia, want the State to regulate things like access to vape or tobacco, or if parents want the freedom to determine at home whether their children should be able to vape or not.
“In the focus groups we’ve done, I personally was very surprised. They support regulation, not 100 per cent, but they know it’s bad for them. The 18-year-olds were telling us, ‘yes, 16-year-olds should never be allowed to buy these things’. The 21-year-olds were telling us, ‘Teenagers should not be allowed to buy these things. My kid brother buys it all the time’.
“I’m not saying 100 per cent of people, but talking at numbers in terms of majorities, the majority support it [regulations]. So to me, that was an eye-opener; it’s not just us grown-ups saying, ‘this is good for you’.”
Boo also questioned the public messaging behind Malaysia’s decision to deregulate liquid nicotine.
“Are you saying that nicotine is no longer harmful, and that’s why you’re now allowing minors to buy it legally? When there are regulations, it’s the government saying that this product is harmful, and that’s why we’re trying to restrict access to it.”
An audience member – in a question to Boo – said that in post-colonial countries like Ireland, an anti-smoking campaign preceded the introduction of smoking regulations, whereas in non-post-colonial countries, the government tends to introduce regulations first that are then complied with by the population based on trust in their government.
Boo noted that the decline of smoking rates in Malaysia has been slowing down and that smoking prevalence among Malaysian men remained high at nearly half of every male adult age group in 2019.
“So I think that’s what plays into the hesitance of the government – successive governments have been trying to push through a Tobacco Control Act. We still do not have a principal legislation regulating tobacco products; we only have subsidiary legislation which is placed under the Food Act.
“For more than a decade, we’ve been trying to push this through. But what was shocking to the medical fraternity and to health advocates was when the government just suddenly deregulated liquid nicotine, making vape with nicotine completely legal.”