Tobacco Bill Limbo Shows Clear Message From Government, Parliament: ‘I Don’t Care’

“The executive has failed to protect the health of our citizens. Now, Parliament is sending a very clear message that they are also not bothered about protecting the health of our citizens” – MCTC chairman Dr M. Murallitharan on the tobacco bill limbo.

KUALA LUMPUR, June 13 – The government’s referral of the tobacco bill to a parliamentary special select committee (PSSC) indicates the bill’s lack of support from both sides of the divide, a health advocate said.

Dr Murallitharan Munisamy – who is chairman of the Malaysian Council for Tobacco Control (MCTC) and managing director of the National Cancer Society of Malaysia (NCSM) – said the likely deferment of the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 to the next Parliament meeting in October highlighted the failure of the executive and the legislature to protect public health.

“The executive has failed to protect the health of our citizens,” Dr Murallitharan told CodeBlue when contacted yesterday. “Now, Parliament is sending a very clear message that they are also not bothered about protecting the health of our citizens.”

There are just two days left before the end of the current Dewan Rakyat meeting scheduled for this Thursday. Dr Murallitharan said he has lost hope of any prompt resolution on the status of the tobacco bill in the upcoming days.

“I can bet RM100, I can even bet RM1,000 that you cannot get the law tabled for second reading before June 15. We don’t even know if the Health PSSC is scheduled to meet within the next two days, and [if they can] push it back into Dewan Rakyat [in time] for them [MPs] to debate and vote, and approve the bill before June 15. I think, short of a miracle from God, I don’t think it will happen.

“For us, the writing on the wall is very clear. October is the nearest. The next Parliament meeting is only in October, and by October, I don’t know what’s going to be the shifts in the dynamics. The law can undergo so many changes in PSSC. The law that goes in today may not even be the law that comes out. We will go back again to a whole period of uncertainty.

“My concern is, will it even come out in October? I have no idea. But the fact is, it will definitely not be in June. In October, will the law look like how it was when it went in? And the most important issue is, while all of this is going on, nicotine is still legally available to children to buy and use in vape,” Dr Murallitharan said.

In an unprecedented move, the government yesterday referred the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill – which regulates tobacco and vape products – to the Health PSSC, chaired by Kuala Selangor MP Dzulkefly Ahmad, after first reading, before even allowing the bill to go to debate at second reading.

The 2023 tobacco bill retained the controversial generational end game (GEG) ban on tobacco and vape products for anyone born from 2007, but mooted a lighter punishment of a maximum RM500 fine or community service for offences by the GEG group, compared to the 2022 bill that failed to pass the previous 14th Parliament.

The Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill was, in fact, drafted based on recommendations by a PSSC from the 14th Parliament that had reviewed the 2022 version. Last year, the Control of Tobacco Product and Smoking Bill 2022 at least managed to get to a debate before referral to a select committee, unlike this year when the 2023 bill was sent to a PSSC before tabling for second reading.

Dr Murallitharan drew parallels on the situation surrounding the tobacco bill to previous political deadlocks, where the intervention of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong was necessary to break the impasse.

“In areas of welfare of the people, we only have these many channels that we can turn to. Even when there was a political deadlock, there was nothing that our current Parliament could resolve, so then the King intervened to call for a unity government.

“So I mean, we have to go to a higher recourse because basically, we are getting very clear signals that they are not interested in the health of the people as much as they are in other things,” Dr Murallitharan said.

The tobacco limbo means that e-cigarettes and vape will remain legally accessible to minors aged below 18, since liquid nicotine was removed from control under the Poisons Act 1952 last March 31.

Dr Murallitharan said that efforts should be made at various levels, including potential bans at the state level, initiatives by the Ministry of Education around schools, and local councils implementing regulations to control the sale and use of nicotine products.

However, the lack of top-down interest poses a significant challenge. Without clear direction from the higher authorities, it is uncertain whether these initiatives will gain traction at the ground level.

“I mean, to be honest, I have really no idea. But like I said, we may need to start working on the top person and appeal to their Majesties. Of course, on a lower level, maybe states can think of banning in their own states, Ministry of Education can do something in schools, around schools, PBTs, local councils – your Majlis Daerah, Majlis Perbandaran – they can actually act and put in controls a bit under their small regulations.

“All this can be done but that’s the thing, there’s no top-down interest at all. I don’t think at the ground level, anybody will even be keen to take it up without any kind of direction at the top because the top is very clear,” Dr Murallitharan said. “The direction is, ‘I don’t care’.”

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