Ambitious generational smoking ban: Will it work?
By:M Rajah
Date:

A cigarette is the only consumer product which when used as directed kills its consumer.

— Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian prime minister

Herculean effort; the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak! This was my reaction when a fellow journalist — a chain smoker — asked what I thought of Khairy Jamaluddin’s recent proposal to ban the sale of cigarettes and other smoking products to anyone born after 2005.

This means those aged 17 years old and below will not be able to buy cigarettes or tobacco products in their lifetime if Malaysia goes ahead with the proposal and enacts a law.

The honourable health minister’s plan has raised eyebrows among certain quarters, surprisingly not among the younger generations but the older ones. The latter appear to be more concerned. Logically, shouldn’t it be the young ones who should be protesting?

I am not a smoker — never had been and will never ever pick up the habit. I have seen relatives, colleagues and friends dying of tobacco-related diseases. Many died a painful death, from cancer; others from heart diseases.

Some couldn’t afford the expensive treatment and had to avoid going to private hospitals, making do with public hospitals which are already up to their neck treating patients suffering from other illnesses.

Health experts and long-time anti-smoking campaigners welcome Khairy’s proposal which will reduce young people’s access to cigarettes which will be part of initial efforts to get the younger generation to quit smoking.

My question is: How will the health minister ensure effective enforcement of the law if and when one is enacted?

Says a recent New Straits Times editorial: “Since 1994, the law has prohibited the sale of tobacco products to minors. Yet, as many underaged teenage boys will attest to, getting hold of cigarettes is easy when there are adults willing to help and corrupt. And even then, how closely, if at all, do cashiers check the identity cards of buyers?

“If Malaysia really wants to phase out smoking, it needs to be clearer and firmer in its methods and not leave such loopholes. Malaysians are experts at finding loopholes, and poor or absent enforcement add to making a mockery of well-intended laws.”

We will be the third country to enact such a law — after Bhutan, which has banned all tobacco products, and New Zealand, which will make smoking illegal next year for those born after 2004.

One genuine concern among Malaysians is that the ban may create a black market for cigarettes, which means the authorities will need more manpower and resource to ensure effective enforcement.

However, an adamant Khairy has said possible shortfalls or loopholes will not stop the authorities from going ahead with the ban.

“Enforcement is important, especially in terms of curbing the sale of illegal cigarettes but this will not stop us from pursuing the ban.

“There are many methods we can use to control the sale of cigarettes to those born beyond 2005,” he said.

Khairy should be lauded and given full backing for his plan. He has the political will to
ensure the success of his proposal. And I believe he is not one who will easily give in to pressure groups.

The health minister has a strong supporter in Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) president Dr Koh Kar Chai who says the sale ban move is in the right direction, and has expressed confidence Khairy will succeed in his plan.

“I believe Khairy has the will to see it through, but it’ll definitely need the collective effort of the entire government and all of society to make it work. Strong enforcement must be the emphasis,
especially at the point of sale,” he said.

Now, let’s look at some figures. In a 2020 report to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Malaysia said one in five of its people (21.3 per cent) aged 15 years old and older are smokers.

Sadly, more than 27,000 tobacco-related deaths are recorded annually in the country due to illnesses like heart disease, cancer and stroke.

More frightening is that 15 per cent of the 27,000 fatalities were also found to be non-smokers who succumbed to exposure to second-hand smoke.

I don’t want to end up being a victim of second-hand smoke. Two of my close friends left early after suffering from lung cancer. They were not smokers and they were suspected of developing cancer from second-hand smoke.

Meanwhile, another not so good news. According to the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019, 21.3 per cent or 4.8 million Malaysians, are smokers. And each smoker infects others around them with second-hand smoke, which worldwide accounts for about 10 per cent of tobacco-caused deaths!

Frightening isn’t it?

Smokers, be considerate. Think of your loved ones, friends and colleagues — whether you are at home, work place or in public place.

In conclusion, I pray and wish the health minister success in his plan.

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