CodeBlue’s View: Anti-Smoking Bill Fiasco Deepens Trust Deficit

“The issue isn’t with the GEG omission per se, but the way the government made its decision that dishonored Parliament. With the deeper trust deficit, how can the government be expected to take tough measures like cigarette tax hikes?” – CodeBlue editorial

“The Committee agrees with the retention of generational end game (GEG) provisions in this bill,” reads a recommendation from the Health parliamentary special select committee (PSSC) on page 23 of its report on its review of the first version of the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 tabled last June.

The report by the bipartisan PSSC led by Kuala Selangor MP Dzulkefly Ahmad – which had worked arduously in 13 meetings with stakeholders, including senior Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) officials from the drafting division, to produce the text of its proposed revisions to the bill – was never tabled in the full chambers of Parliament for debate.

Instead, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s administration tossed the PSSC’s 736-page report into the trash can by unilaterally decoupling the generational smoking ban from the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill – ostensibly on Attorney-General Ahmad Terrirudin Mohd Salleh’s sudden advice in a two-paragraph statement that the proposal to ban tobacco and vape products for anyone born from 2007 is unconstitutional.

After both government and Opposition MPs condemned the omission of the GEG with rare vitriol, yesterday’s passage of the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill in a voice vote did not feel like a win.

In fact, public perception is that what was meant to be Malaysia’s first-ever standalone tobacco and vape control Act has turned into a Big Tobacco and Big Vape machination.

Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa did not address allegations from multiple MPs about tobacco and vape companies interfering with the legislative process. Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization’s Framework on Convention Control (FCTC), which Malaysia ratified in 2005, mandates the protection of tobacco control policies from tobacco industry influence.

Despite their reservations, parliamentarians had no choice but to urgently approve the bill because of the existing lacuna in the law that permits the legal sale of nicotine vapes to children.

This unprecedented regulatory gap was opened up by none other than the health minister herself when she vetoed the Poisons Board and exempted liquid nicotine from the list of scheduled poisons under the Poisons Act 1952 last March 31.

The issue isn’t so much the abandonment of the GEG policy per se, but the way the executive made its decision that dishonoured Parliament, disrespected the medical fraternity, and debased anti-tobacco advocates.

If Anwar’s government did not support the GEG since coming into power – whether due to perceived lack of support from both MPs and the general public, or concerns with constitutionality or practicality (all of which are legitimate reasons) – then it should have been honest from the start of the year.

Why go through the farce of tabling the bill with the GEG in June and sending it to the Health PSSC, only to rip it all up?

The government could have let the June bill go to debate, instead of diverting it to the select committee, and allowed a free vote in Parliament so that those who were opposed to the GEG – whether due to personal ideology or constituents’ demands (again, legitimate reasons) – could vote based on their conscience.

By all accounts, based on Wednesday’s debate and public anger about the decoupling of the GEG, it seems like there is real support from many MPs and ordinary Malaysians for the vision of a smoke-free generation that has since been vaporised.

The exclusion of e-cigarette and vape devices, or “smoking devices”, from the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill also risks creating yet another loophole in regulation, similar to how vapes were sold widely – albeit illegally – even though nicotine was previously classified a poison that could only be dispensed by a doctor or pharmacist.

Based on CodeBlue’s on-the-ground reportage on the vape market, the sleek and colourful packaging of devices plays a big factor in attracting children and teenagers to pick up vaping. Open vape systems, in which the device is sold separately from refillable e-liquids, is believed to form a predominant share of the local market.

Although the health minister says that smoking devices will be regulated by both the Domestic Trade and Cost of Living Ministry (safety standards) and the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry (manufacturing), the aim of these ministries is to make such devices safer or to promote the local industry – not to restrict them from a public health perspective.

Dropping smoking devices from the anti-smoking bill is like regulating bullets alone, but not guns.

So, what now? Subang MP Wong Chen has called for an increase in excise duties on cigarettes, which haven’t been raised since 2015, as “the only other acceptable political compromise” to dropping the GEG.

Deputy MITI Minister Liew Chin Tong – in issuing an unconventional statement on a bill from another ministry – suggested that the government impose plain packaging for cigarettes, as the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill provides the health minister wide-ranging powers to prescribe such regulations.

Of course, the government can take such measures and more – like banning vape flavours or open vape systems – to extract its pound of flesh from the industry.

But Anwar’s administration behaved in a manner that was, at the very least, disingenuous, and bordering on duplicity, throughout this nearly one-year saga.

If Dr Zaliha could ignore institutions like the Poisons Board and a parliamentary select committee, how can the health minister be expected to push for major policies like a hike in cigarette taxes, plain packaging, or a ban on certain vape products that would require tough confrontations with other ministers and the industry?

The Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill invests significant powers in the government – particularly in the health minister herself, who has the authority to draft regulations without needing parliamentary approval – to control and regulate tobacco and vape.

But, to quote American feminist activist Gloria Feldt, “power unused is power useless”.

Editorials represent the views of CodeBlue as an institution, as determined through debate in the newsroom. CodeBlue’s Editorial Board comprises editor-in-chief Boo Su-Lyn, senior health writer Alifah Zainuddin, and health writer Sharayu Pillai.

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