The debate and passage of the long-awaited Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 over the past two days in the Dewan Rakyat will long be remembered as a major achievement in anti-smoking and anti-vape efforts in Malaysia.
At last, once the Bill passes the Dewan Negara, signed by the King and gazetted, Malaysia will have primary legislation governing the sale, use, and promotion of tobacco and smoking products containing nicotine such as cigarettes, vape, and e-cigarettes.
This process of bringing the Bill into law will likely be completed by the time Parliament meets again next year.
The bipartisan debate during the second reading which occurred among more than 25 Members of Parliament (MPs) saw unprecedented levels of criticism, disappointment, and accusation being levelled at the government by both sides of the Dewan Rakyat.
Upon reflection, the stewardship of the bill could have been better, and it is likely to have caused harm, widened the deficit of trust, and resulted in policy uncertainty and unpredictability.
Many of the issues raised by MPs centred around three main points: the reason used as justification for the government to drop the generational end game (GEG); the absence of the PSSC recommendations; and alleged interference by the tobacco and vape industries.
MPs raised questions as to how the GEG provisions contained within a Bill which was worked on closely by the Ministry of Health (MOH) over the past two years, across two governments and two parliaments, involving three Parliamentary Special Select Committees, and involved more than a dozen consultation meetings with various stakeholders, government, non-government and industry, including legal experts from the Attorney General Chambers, was suddenly deemed unconstitutional and discarded.
Unlike the opinion from the MOH’s own legal advisor, which cited prominent case law and legal precedence, the eyebrow-raising response was that was what the Attorney General opined, the Cabinet collectively supported the opinion, and if GEG was really warranted, it could be considered at a much later date.
How something deemed unconstitutional today, could be deemed unconstitutional and acceptable a few years from now, was not explained or elaborated on.
It was also disturbing to note the absence of output from at least 13 meetings convened under the Parliamentary Special Select Committee on Health under the chairmanship of Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad.
Despite the fact that the Bill was deliberately referred to the PSSC by the current Health Minister back in June with the intention of producing recommendations to improve the proposed legislation, these recommendations were not even heard, much less debated on.
The effort was barely recognised, and ended up as a one-liner during the winding-up speech. The earlier referral to the PSSC now appears to have been a feint, deceptive and even disrespectful.
The government also failed to address or even respond to the many insinuations and direct accusations by the MPs of tobacco and vape industry influence, interference and threats on the policy process.
Considering Malaysia’s obligations under the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, it would be a serious violation if any of it were remotely true.
The sudden dropping of the devices used for vaping from the proposed legislation and the weak argument supporting it certainly implied this and these concerns warranted a proper response or defence.
Overall, despite its shortcomings, the successful passage of the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 marks the beginning of the end of a decades-long effort to ensure that Malaysia finally has a standalone legislation covering tobacco, smoking products, and nicotine delivery systems such as vape and e-cigarettes.
It is a major achievement. It will bring our laws and regulations up to speed, as they are fast falling behind the challenges posed by evolving technologies and innovation. It forms the foundation of future amendments and regulations.
The nicotine vape gap will also finally be on its way to being plugged. But similarly to Pandora’s Box, the self-created lacuna has already released serious harm, particularly among children and minors. It will take time to close.
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.