Tobacco Bill Passed At The Cost Of GEG And Democracy

Despite a fractious debate by 27 MPs, the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 was passed by the Dewan Rakyat today, after the government arbitrarily dismissed the 736-page report and work of the Health PSSC that had worked on the bill.

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 30 – The Dewan Rakyat passed the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 today, paving the way for Malaysia’s first-ever standalone tobacco and vape control Act.

Parliamentarians passed the bill in a voice vote, after a fractious and combative debate yesterday evening that saw both government and Opposition MPs condemn the decoupling of the generational end game (GEG) ban from the bill – which they attributed to influence from Big Tobacco and the vape industry.

Pakatan Harapan (PH) lawmakers – Pasir Gudang MP Hassan Abdul Karim and Segamat MP R. Yuneswaran, both from PKR – were particularly ferocious in their attacks, as were Opposition MPs from Perikatan Nasional (PN), including Putrajaya MP Radzi Jidin and Machang MP Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Ahmad Kamal. 

Hassan questioned the government’s rationale of dropping the GEG from the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill because of Attorney-General Ahmad Terrirudin Mohd Salleh’s opinion that the proposal to ban tobacco and vape products for anyone born from 2007 was unconstitutional.

He said other parties are free to mount a court challenge against laws considered to be unconstitutional.

“It is the court that decides, not the Attorney-General as the gatekeeper. If that were the case, then we don’t need Parliament. Just let the Attorney-General and Cabinet make laws.”

Yuneswaran didn’t mince words either during his debate, declaring: “We are constitutionally killing our people by allowing cigarettes to the people.”

Langkawi MP Mohd Suhaimi Abdullah from PN said it was clear that the GEG was dropped from the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill “under the thumb of the vape and tobacco industry”.

Putrajaya MP Radzi highlighted evidence from the previous parliamentary special select committee (PSSC) on the 2022 tobacco bill and from the current Health PSSC chaired by Kuala Selangor MP Dzulkefly Ahmad to show that both select committees had endorsed the GEG.

He also rebutted claims by some government backbenchers that the generational smoking ban policy could be brought back to Parliament in future, pointing out that this was impossible if there were legal or constitutional issues with the GEG.

“That’s why I stress here that the Minister must be clear. If there was last-minute lobbying, or lobbying in the United States and the like, then tell the truth.”

Radzi also pointed out that the urgency to pass the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill today was caused by Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa herself, after she signed the order last March 31 exempting liquid nicotine from the list of scheduled poisons under the Poisons Act 1952.

“Imagine, from April 1 till today, our children have started taking nicotine vape liquids because of the lacuna in the law created by the Minister herself. Does the Minister not feel guilty?”

Machang MP Wan Ahmad Fayhsal, who is also Bersatu Youth chief, told the House that even though many vape businesses are run by Malay youths, the issue was about public health.

“Just because you’re Malay and you ask us to support the devastation of the future of the people, I will not support it,” he said, as he condemned the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill that “has been castrated by the Madani government”.

“This is treason to future generations.”

Many MPs also questioned why e-cigarette and vape devices, or “smoking devices”, were dropped from the bill.

Dr Zaliha, during her winding-up speech on the debate, did not address MPs’ allegations about tobacco industry influence causing the decoupling of the GEG from the bill.

Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii – who emerged last minute to debate the bill this morning – did not deny the occurrence of lobbying from the tobacco and vape industry.

“Some say that we bowed to powerful industry lobbyists, but let’s be honest, lobbying is part of democracy. Any policy has lobbying. Why is it that in this issue, people say we bowed to industry?” the health minister’s special advisor told the Dewan Rakyat.

The DAP lawmaker clarified his remarks in a post on X later, saying: “When I mentioned ‘lobbying’, I meant different parties putting forth their views and argument, from either side. It is not ‘lobbying that involves money or any undue influence’.”

Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which Malaysia ratified in 2005, states that member countries must protect the setting and implementation of public health policies with respect to tobacco control from “commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry”, in accordance with national law. 

Dr Zaliha appeared to take offence at the “provocation and attacks” against her during yesterday’s debate, as she cited Prophet Muhammad’s teachings to “treat women well”.

“YBs, we should remember that we don’t just want to create a smoke-free generation, but it is equally important to create a generation that is not corrupt, that doesn’t take people’s money, that doesn’t engage in defamation, and that doesn’t blindly follow leaders,” she told Parliament today during her winding-up speech.

She said the decision to decouple the GEG from the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill was a “collective” decision by the government, as she cited the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ (AGC) view that the generational smoking ban could be challenged in court because it violated Article 8 of the Federal Constitution that guarantees equality before the law.

“Even though it’s true that Members of Parliament draft law and make policy, the Attorney-General’s Chambers’ views and advice must be taken into account in the drafting of any law that will be tabled so that it doesn’t contravene existing laws, especially the Federal Constitution,” Dr Zaliha said.

“I wish to stress that this bill is a standalone Act that enables more comprehensive controls. Under this bill, there are additional clauses, such as the requirement to register all smoking products, restrictions on sales and advertising of artificial smoking products, and acute or critical situations that are absent from the current regulations.”  

The first-term MP and minister also claimed that the GEG could be returned in the future after monitoring of the impact of the new Act, such as if smoking prevalence drops. “If there’s a need, we can bring it back.”

Dr Zaliha explained that “smoking devices” was dropped from the bill because these will be regulated by the Domestic Trade and Cost of Living (KPDNHEP) that sets safety standards, as well as by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) that will regulate manufacturing of such devices.

“Indirect advertising” of smoking devices, like advertising that “smoking is fun”, is prohibited under the bill.

Disposable vapes will still be regulated under the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill as it is considered to be a “smoking substance”. 

The health minister added that nicotine replacement therapy like the nicotine gum will not be prohibited to minors aged under 18 under the bill, as this smoking-cessation treatment is regulated under the Control of Drugs and Cosmetics Regulations 1984.

The Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill – the third version of the tobacco bill ever since former Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin proposed the GEG last year – was approved by Parliament today, amid anger from MPs, the general public, and especially the medical fraternity that widely perceive the omission of the GEG as acquiescence to Big Tobacco.

The first version of this bill under Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government – tabled last June with GEG provisions retained – was summarily retracted and replaced with the version decoupled from the generational smoking ban.

Immediately after the June bill was tabled for first reading, the government referred it to the bipartisan Health PSSC chaired by Dzulkefly. The former health minister told Parliament yesterday that the select committee held 13 meetings with stakeholders, including an expert panel from 13 public and private universities, to review the bill.

The report by the Health PSSC, which roped in senior AGC officials from the drafting division, even included the text of its proposed revised bill that retained GEG provisions.

Yet, the government summarily dismissed the Health PSSC’s work – without even debating its 736-page report in the full chambers of Parliament – before replacing the June bill with the November version that was later passed today.

The GEG was omitted from the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill without stakeholder engagements with anti-tobacco groups or public health experts.

Instead, AG Ahmad Terrirudin’s two-paragraph statement on November 18 about the unconstitutionality of the generational smoking ban appeared out of the blue. 

In the following days – right until the new bill omitting the GEG was tabled two days ago – the health minister did not hold a press conference or issue a statement to explain what had happened.

“Thank God, the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill was approved in the Dewan Rakyat just a while ago,” Dr Zaliha posted on X.

The medical fraternity on X did not (sincerely) congratulate the health minister or the Anwar administration.

“Congratulations, vape industry. Congratulations, tobacco industry. Congrats to the current government, you just submitted to the tobacco industry. Well done,” a community pharmacist sarcastically posted on X, after the passage of the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill.

You may also like