KUALA LUMPUR, July 9 – Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa has stunningly defended the legal declassification of liquid nicotine as a scheduled poison, amid anti-tobacco groups’ court challenge of the delisting.
Although Dr Zaliha told reporters yesterday initially that she wanted to avoid committing sub-judice, she went on to comment anyway on the removal of liquid nicotine from control under the Poisons Act 1952.
“Nonetheless, it is the Ministry’s priority to take care of children’s health. Child health is important,” Dr Zaliha told a press conference in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan, after officiating the launch of a long-term cohort study on diabetes by the Ministry of Health (MOH) in collaboration with International Medical University Malaysia (IMU).
“So, there was no problem when we removed nicotine from the Poisons Act – it doesn’t mean that we’re saying nicotine isn’t a poison, or that we’re neglecting child health.”
CodeBlue obtained an audio recording of Dr Zaliha’s press conference. Below is a transcript of her verbatim comments:
“Sekarang ni, kita tahu kes itu dah masuk ke mahkamah, so saya tak nak sub-judis tentang perkara ini. Kita tunggu, tengok macam mana kemudiannya.
“Tetapi apapun, menjadi keutamaan kepada kementerian untuk kita menjaga kesihatan kanak-kanak. Kesihatan anak-anak ini penting.
“Jadi tak ada, tak timbul masalah apabila kita keluarkan nikotin daripada Akta Racun – bermakna kita tidak menyatakan perkara itu, nikotin itu bukan racun dan kita mengabaikan kesihatan kanak-kanak.”
The Malaysian Council for Tobacco Control, an anti-tobacco coalition of over 40 organisations, anti-tobacco group Malaysian Green Lung Association, and child rights group Voice of the Children, recently filed an application for judicial review in the High Court against the order gazetted by Dr Zaliha last March 31 that removed liquid and gel nicotine from the list of scheduled poisons under the Poisons Act 1952.
The unprecedented lawsuit in the history of anti-tobacco litigation in Malaysia – filed by medical and health non-governmental organisations against the health minister and the government – accused the health minister of harming public health, particularly children. The case is set for hearing on July 26.
Prior to her remarks yesterday, Dr Zaliha told the Dewan Rakyat Special Chamber last June 12 that the exemption of liquid and gel nicotine used in e-cigarettes and vaporisers from the Poisons List was the government’s “due process” to enable the taxation of e-liquids with nicotine.
The health minister has also previously admitted a lacuna in the law, as the removal of liquid nicotine from the Poisons Act effectively legalised the sale of e-cigarettes and vape to anyone, including minors aged below 18, amid the lack of regulations on such nicotine products.
In a written Dewan Negara reply last June 22, Dr Zaliha instead told parents to protect their children from vape and urged the industry to practise “self-regulation” to avoid selling e-cigarettes to young people.
The MOH functions as the regulator of all health and medical-related matters in the country, empowered by legislations and regulations to protect public health beyond merely issuing verbal health advice as a health care provider.
The Poisons Act is a law that regulates poisons, or substances. Prior to the exemption of liquid and gel nicotine from the Poisons List last March 31, the highly addictive substance was classified as a Group C poison that could only be supplied by pharmacists or doctors as a medicine.
Tobacco is not classified as a poison as it is regulated instead under the Control of Tobacco Products Regulations 2004 under the Food Act 1983. However, the tobacco control regulations do not apply to e-cigarettes and vape products.
Section 17 of the Poisons Act explicitly protects minors aged below 18 from scheduled poisons, making it an offence to sell or supply poisons to a minor other than for purposes of medical treatment.
Anti-tobacco groups filed their lawsuit last June 30 to challenge the declassification of liquid nicotine after the government failed to secure passage of the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 in the last Dewan Rakyat meeting.
Despite having two-thirds majority in Parliament, the unity government led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim referred the bill that regulates tobacco and vape products instead to the Health parliamentary special select committee after it was tabled for first reading last June 12.