No More Excuses Or Delays, MPs Must Pass The Tobacco Bill — Azrul Mohd Khalib

The decoupling of GEG from the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill is superseded by the government’s “self-inflicted harm” from the legalisation of nicotine vape for children. MPs must pass the bill this week, writes Azrul Mohd Khalib.

This week, if all goes according to plan, the Ministry of Health will once again attempt to finally table the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 for debate and passage in the Dewan Rakyat.

After several false starts and mishaps, this version of the proposed piece of omnibus legislation, previously known as the Tobacco and Smoking Control Bill, and popularly known as the GEG Bill, will be missing a key component. It will not feature any provision referencing the Generational End Game or GEG. This has been removed or decoupled from the Bill.

It is hoped and intended that with the removal of this controversial provision, legislators in both houses of Parliament will find the Bill palatable and vote to pass the proposed legislation.

Regulations Are Struggling

Many are not aware that it has taken 13 years to finally get to this point. Unlike many other countries, Malaysia continues to not have a specific law governing the sale, use, and promotion of tobacco products such as cigarettes.

The government depends on the Control of Tobacco Product Regulations 2004, which are parked under the Food Act 1983. These are the same laws which govern manufacturing of fried chicken, soft drinks, and alcoholic beverages, as well as general food quality and safety.

With millions of people now taking up nicotine vaping, such regulations are now struggling, are no longer fit for purpose, and even obsolete.

One such struggle could be seen after the government’s decision to remove gel and liquid nicotine used for e-cigarettes and vape from the list of scheduled substances under the Poisons Act 1952 in April, which produced a gaping vacuum or lacuna in the law.

It should be worrying to Members of Parliament and the general public that the nicotine content for vape products available in this country is among the highest in the world. New cases of nicotine addiction are now appearing, some of whom are children.

As a result of this decision (which was for the purposes of taxation), vape with nicotine now enjoys unrestricted availability and sales. It is now currently legal for a retailer to sell nicotine products (i.e., vape pens containing nicotine) to children.

If the need for the Bill was urgent before, this self-inflicted harm due to the government’s decision has raised the priority for this proposed legislation to emergency and desperate levels.

No other country in the world, beside Malaysia, currently makes it legal for children to be sold, used, or targeted for the sales and marketing of such nicotine products.

Retailers are selling disposable vape with nicotine devices to children and adolescents. More and more packaging and marketing materials seem to be targeting children with bright colours, sweet and juicy flavours, and cartoon shaped devices.

Whether or not the Generational End Game provisions which are intended to close the gate on new generations of smokers and vapers, are included in this Bill, is superseded by this dire situation.

We need the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 to plug the gap.

Industry Interference

No doubt, this Bill has seen an unprecedented level of industry interference, some of which have been done in clear violation of the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). It has resulted in continuous delays and surprising findings.

The industries are changing their business models, moving from cigarettes to vape as the main nicotine delivery device for the masses. They are moving faster, leaving obsolete legislation and exploiting loopholes.

It will soon be hard to differentiate between those selling cigarettes and those selling nicotine vape. In the future, they will be the same people.

International Standards

Malaysia needs to bring its tobacco-related legislation and regulations to the same standards of other countries such as Australia, Thailand, and Singapore.

It needs a separate law which acts as primary legislation not just for tobacco products, but also for vape and other future nicotine delivery systems.

Besides plugging the nicotine vape hole, passing this Bill will bring Malaysia’s legislation forward by a decade.

People who smoke and those who vape are not and have never been “the enemy”. No one wishes for their daughters, sons, grandchildren, and other loved ones to become addicted to nicotine, to suffer from chronic diseases such as lung cancer, and lose their lives prematurely.

Quitting is hard. It takes smokers at least 30 attempts, and relapse rates are high.

The increasing presence of vape users at smoking cessation clinics make up a new group of people wanting to be treated for their nicotine addiction. More and more smokers and vapers are desperate to quit.

The Cost Of Delays

For every RM1 collected from the tax currently imposed on tobacco products, RM4 is spent on treating those suffering from chronic smoking and vape-related diseases such as lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Unfortunately, an estimated 27,000 people annually will prematurely lose their lives due to these conditions.

The tax revenue to be collected from the excise duty on vape liquids with nicotine content at 40 sen per millilitre, has been estimated to be on the sunny side of RM600 million. It does not even reach RM1 billion.

The government spends at least RM16 billion a year to treat patients with diseases caused by smoking and vaping. Combined with the indirect cost such as loss of productivity, disability and poor quality of life, this amount constitutes an estimated 1.3 per cent of Malaysia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

These numbers are expected to worsen and rise, as more people take up nicotine vaping.

Wake Up And Smell The Sweet Nicotine-Laced Vape

This piece of legislation is urgently needed, critical, and long overdue. We will look back at the harm and suffering caused by smoking and vaping, the lives lost prematurely, the billions wasted, and wonder why it took so long to act and why did we repeatedly hesitate to pass it.

The government of the day and MPs must wake up to the harsh reality. Talk to public health experts, clinicians treating cancer, and even smokers and vapers themselves.

Removing liquid or gel nicotine from the list of controlled substances without legislation or even basic regulations in place was, and continues to be, a major mistake. Vape remains unregulated, unrestricted, and out of control. It will remain so until this Bill is passed by Parliament.

Members of Parliament, let us table, debate and pass this Bill! 

Azrul Mohd Khalib is the chief executive of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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