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Price hike won’t deter hardcore smokers

 | April 2, 2017

The government must enforce anti-smoking rules like it means business.

COMMENT

Rokok-CigaretteA reduction in the number of smokers in Malaysia is certainly a noble goal, and the reported coming price hike that will see a pack of 20 cigarettes rocket past the RM20 mark will place tobacco out of reach of the average student and even some working adults, forcing them to make a drastic lifestyle decision.

With an estimated five million smokers as of 2016, Malaysia does have an addiction problem. Where global trends have seen the numbers of smokers decreasing, we seem to have gone against the grain and upped the number of our citizens puffing and coughing away.

The problem with the reported move lies not in the price hike itself, but with the statement justifying it. Deputy Health Minister Hilmi Yahaya said: “Although we have held numerous campaigns, unfortunately we are fighting against the odds. For example, we have declared rest and recreation areas to be restricted smoking areas, yet there are still people smoking there.”

Now let’s turn to our neighbour down south. Smoking is by and large banned from public areas in Singapore, with hefty fines for offences such as smoking outside of designated smoking areas. And since littering is another expensive offence, smokers are encouraged to have their own ashtrays ready.

What makes Singaporeans follow the rules? It certainly isn’t because everyone is civic conscious. It’s because the laws are enforced with ironclad regularity, and there is no worming out of paying a fine.

What if Malaysian police brooked no argument and booked every smoker daring to step out of line? A hefty RM200 fine or up to RM1,000 would be deterrent enough for many smokers.

The problem here is that no one is enforcing the laws we make regarding smoke-free zones. So the move seems like less of a decision to punish smokers than it is to hike up the price of a box of cigarettes so that the government can celebrate a windfall. This has been noted by smoking social media users.

There is nothing wrong with hiking up the price of cigarettes to prevent a noxious habit from spreading to the young. However, the move is seen as an attempt to skin the Malaysian smoker precisely because there is no enforcement, whether against littering or against smoking in prohibited areas.

The move deserves praise, but the problem of smoking cannot be solved with price hikes alone. Smuggled cigarettes are sure to be in vogue. Again because of lack of enforcement, smokers will be able to buy cheap and possibly low quality and even dangerous brands at the right mamak or sundry store.

If the government is truly serious about handling this social ill once and for all, it is time we learned a few things from Singapore regarding law enforcement. The price hike is not enough, and as a smoker puts it, “That just means I need to make more money.” For the dedicated smoker, the price hike is merely an annoyance.

Scott Ng is an FMT columnist

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