KUALA LUMPUR, June 12 – The tobacco bill is likely to remain in limbo after it was referred to a select committee today, potentially leaving nicotine vape legally accessible to children indefinitely.
The government referred the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023, which regulates tobacco and vape products, to the Health parliamentary special select committee (PSSC) immediately after tabling it for first reading at the Dewan Rakyat today.
“The Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 is a new bill that takes into account recommendations from the previous Health PSSC discussions in 2022, as well as the latest amendments related to the generational end game (GEG). This bill has been presented to a Cabinet meeting and received approval to be tabled in Parliament.
“The first reading of this bill demonstrates the government’s commitment to implementing it. The provision of the blue bill on the desks of all Members of Parliament (MPs) serves as evidence of the government’s dedication. However, considering the engagement session with the PSSC on June 6, as well as input from MPs, professional bodies, and civil societies, there is a request for certain matters to be further examined and refined.
“It is crucial for this bill to receive unanimous support from all parties involved. As such, the Ministry of Health (MOH) proposes that the bill be referred to the Health PSSC for further study, as the PSSC serves as a mechanism for checks and balances that takes into account views from all stakeholders.
“I want to emphasise that the MOH will remain committed to ensuring the expeditious approval of this bill for the sake of public health and the future generation,” Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa told the Dewan Rakyat.
Last August, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s administration referred the first iteration of the tobacco bill – the Control of Tobacco Product and Smoking Bill 2022 – to a PSSC chaired by then-Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin after the second reading of the bill in the Dewan Rakyat, during which multiple MPs had raised several concerns.
However, unlike the 2022 bill, the 2023 bill (an entirely new bill) in the 15th Parliament came with high stakes due to the Anwar Ibrahim government’s own actions in removing liquid nicotine from the Poisons Act 1952 that legalised vape and e-cigarettes to enable the taxation of e-liquids with nicotine, despite the complete lack of regulations for these products.
Current tobacco regulations under the Food Act 1983 do not cover e-cigarettes or vape, only conventional tobacco products like cigarettes.
The unity government’s move to divert the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill to a PSSC immediately after first reading is highly unusual.
First, it’s uncommon for any administration not to take a bill through all stages in a single parliamentary meeting, unless it’s tabled at the end of one and debated and passed in the first few days of the next. Bills are frequently passed in just a few days after tabling for first reading without going through any PSSC.
But it is extraordinary for the government to refer the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill to a select committee, without this being asked for by MPs in a debate in full chambers of the House.
There are just three days left before the end of the current Dewan Rakyat meeting scheduled for this Thursday.
The Health PSSC, chaired by former Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad, can either choose to endorse the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill as it is or suggest revisions, and send the bill back to the government as early as Wednesday, skirting it thin.
The ball will then be in the government’s court to decide whether or not to take the tobacco bill to second reading for a debate and third reading for a vote during the current parliamentary meeting.
However, the PSSC may want more time to scrutinise the bill beyond just a couple of days, in which case, the bill will be delayed, yet again. The next Dewan Rakyat meeting is scheduled for October.
The Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill retains the GEG ban on tobacco and vape products for anyone born from 2007, but, unlike the 2022 bill, the 2023 version proposes lighter punishment of a maximum RM500 fine or community service for offenders from the GEG group. Certain enforcement powers also exclude offences by the GEG group, while personal possession of tobacco or vape products is not an offence for the GEG group either.
The government’s decision today not to take the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill to debate straight after the first reading – much less a vote – means that e-cigarettes and vape may remain legally accessible – indefinitely – to children and teenagers aged under 18 in Malaysia.
Last March 31, Dr Zaliha exercised her ministerial authority – overriding unanimous objection from the Poisons Board – to remove liquid nicotine from the Poisons List of controlled substances.
Dr Zaliha and MOH officials even held two briefings for MPs – in March and last week – on the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill, only for the Dewan Rakyat to potentially end up not discussing what could have been Malaysia’s first ever tobacco control Act.