Tobacco Industry Interference In Malaysia Worsened This Year: Report

Malaysia scored worse in the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023 compared to 2021, due to the legalisation of e-cigs/ vape after liquid nicotine was delisted, the lack of tobacco tax hikes, and industry interactions with government officials.

KUALA LUMPUR, July 13 – Malaysia performed worse this year in a global report on tobacco industry interference with public health policies, compared to two years ago.

Malaysia’s performance in the annual Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index by the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control declined to a total score of 76 for 2023, compared to 66 for 2021. A higher score denotes a higher level of industry interference.

Tobacco industry interference has been consistently rising in Malaysia over the past four years, from a score of 62 in the 2019 index to 76 this year, the third-worst category.

The June 2023 report for Malaysia – authored by the Malaysian Women’s Action for Tobacco Control and Health (MyWatch) with acknowledgements to the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (Seatca) – highlighted the lack of an increase in excise taxes on tobacco for the last eight years (the last hike was in 2014); the abandonment of plans for standardised tobacco packaging; as well as delays in a ban on cigarette pack display at points of sale and licensing of retailers to sell tobacco.

The Malaysia report further highlighted the delay in the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 that contains a generational end game (GEG) to ban tobacco and vape products for anyone born from 2007. 

The bill was referred to a parliamentary special select committee after first reading in the Dewan Rakyat last June 12. A previous version of the bill – the Control of Tobacco Product and Smoking Bill 2022 – failed to pass last year before the dissolution of the 14th Parliament for the 15th general election.

MyWatch’s report attributed the legalisation of e-cigarettes with the declassification of liquid nicotine from the Poisons Act 1952 as a scheduled poison – which was gazetted by Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa in an order last March 31 – to “an aggressive campaign by the TI (tobacco industry) and its front groups”.

“With this crucial amendment of the law, the industry is able to sell more nicotine-based products without any regulation because the GEG bill is stalled.”

The Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023 report for Malaysia, however, also noted positive tobacco control policies, such as the freezing of new import licences for tobacco and the removal of the duty-free status of cigarettes on duty-free islands and any free zones that previously permitted the retail sale of duty-free cigarettes.

The report, based on a questionnaire developed by Seatca, included information on incidents from April 2021 to March 2023, but also included incidents prior to 2021 that still have relevance today.

“Over the past eight years, Malaysia has had no progress in implementing Article 5.3 guidelines of the WHO (World Health Organization) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and is faring poorly in protecting public health policies from interference from the tobacco industry (TI).”

Tobacco Industry To Gain From Liquid Nicotine Delisting, Vape Legalisation

First, the Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023 report for Malaysia highlighted industry participation in policy development.

“The tobacco/ vape industry and their front groups lobbied the government for the approval of ENDS (electronic nicotine delivery devices) using several arguments, including how this will address smuggling, the government can collect substantial taxes, and offer these products for smoking cessation,” said the report.

“In March 2023, the Ministry of Health (MOH) amended the National Poisons Act and removed nicotine as a Class C poison. This enabled the importation and sale of ENDS, such as vape products.

“The Minister of Finance (also the Prime Minister) announced they will tax vape products, thereby legalising them for sale. The tobacco industry stands to gain the most from this move. 

“Since the proposed Tobacco Control Act, containing the generational end game (GEG) was not approved in 2022, there is currently no regulation of vapes.”

The Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023 report pointed out that the MOH did not provide an opportunity for public consultation prior to exempting liquid and gel nicotine from the Poisons List.

MyWatch’s report also noted that tobacco taxes were not increased in the federal government’s 2022 and 2023 budgets, “following an extensive campaign by the tobacco industry”, citing the 2021 “Stop the Black Market” campaign by the Malaysian subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT). 

Industry Sits On National Kenaf And Tobacco Board

MyWatch noted that in January 2019, under the-then Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration, Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok announced that the government had not decided yet to impose licensing requirements for retailers to sell tobacco products.

“This is clearly a delay in the government taking action to address the issue of access to tobacco through licensing,” said MyWatch’s report.

MyWatch noted that the National Kenaf and Tobacco Board (LKTN) – which includes a seat for the tobacco industry – set up an online registration system from January 1 this year to distribute tobacco with free licence registrations. According to LKTN’s website, a BAT Malaysia representative is on the board. LKTN members from the MOH – the ministry’s secretary-general and head of tobacco control – have yet to be appointed to the board.

“Unlike other countries where retailers are charged a licensing fee as a means for better control and disincentivises retailers, in Malaysia after 11 years, the online registration is free. 

“There are no terms for registration, such as the retailer’s distance with schools, hospitals and places of worship. There are an estimated 60,000 retailers selling cigarettes throughout Malaysia.”

Industry Meetings With Ministers, Deputy Ministers

The report criticised Deputy Health Minister Lukanisman Awang Sauni’s meeting with vape industry representatives last April 13 as an “unnecessary interaction”. 

“There is no record of this meeting on the Ministry’s website, nor the purpose of the meeting with the industry made known to the public.”

Malaysia Retail Electronic Cigarette Association (MRECA) president Adzwan Ab Manas said in a Facebook post of the meeting with Lukanisman that industry players were reminded to practise self-regulation to avoid selling vape to minors aged below 18.

MyWatch’s report further highlighted a meeting last March 17 organised by the US-Asean Business Council between business executives from American corporations, including tobacco company Philip Morris, and Cabinet members, notably Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz and Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, as well as Domestic Trade and Cost of Living Deputy Minister Fuziah Salleh.

The US-Asean Business Council also met Dr Zaliha, Transport Minister Anthony Loke, and Bank Negara’s deputy governor and assistant governor.

Industry CSR Activities: Community Farm Garden, Environmental Cleanups

MyWatch’s report highlighted further tobacco industry interference in Malaysia through corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.

Last March, BAT Malaysia organised a community farm garden initiative called “Beyond Benih” in Tanjong Karang and Shah Alam in Selangor, involving 165,000 beneficiaries to support them to grow their food using organic agriculture techniques through to 2026.

The tobacco company reportedly worked with the Selangor Department of Agriculture and local authorities for the project.

Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) collaborated with BAT Malaysia last year in a trash cleanup across beaches in Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Perak and Pahang, said MyWatch’s report.

Philip Morris Malaysia has installed 200 cigarette butt canisters across the country, targeting tourist locations near beaches, as well as some urban areas, to remove cigarette litter from the environment, noted MyWatch, citing a 2021 report by the American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce (Amcham). 

Government Continues Investments In Tobacco Companies

The Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023 report noted that the government continues to hold investments in tobacco companies.

“The Employees Provident Fund (EPF) – one of BAT’s major shareholders which has stated its intention to move towards ESG (environmental, social and governance) Investments – has been paring down its stake in the group,” said MyWatch’s report.

“The EPF, which previously announced that it would be gradually decreasing its stake in the group, now holds about 5 per cent stake.”

The report also noted that corporations are not required to declare their contributions to political parties in Malaysia, “hence there is no official record of contributions, if any, from tobacco companies to political parties.”

Recommendations: Tobacco Tax Increase In 2023, Code Of Conduct On Interactions With Tobacco Industry

MyWatch called for a tax increase on tobacco products this year.

The anti-tobacco group also recommended enacting a code of conduct for government officials to provide guidance on interactions with the tobacco industry. 

“The Code will enable the government to fully implement comprehensive tobacco control measures based on the WHO FCTC.”

Government officials must also record all interactions, where strictly necessary, with the tobacco industry, said MyWatch.

The Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index is a review of how governments are responding to influences from the tobacco industry and protecting their public health policies from commercial interests, as required under Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC.

“In 2014, the Ministry of Health started work on developing an Article 5.3 code of conduct for officials, prescribing the standards with which they should comply in their dealings with the tobacco industry. The initiative then focused on just the Ministry of Health’s staff several years ago. The Code was not finalised in 2022,” said MyWatch’s report.

Malaysia has been a party to the WHO FCTC, an international treaty, since 2005.

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