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Higher prices won’t stop smoking, alternatives will

October 24, 2017

Writer says increasing taxes on cigarettes will only make the problem worse as illegal cigarettes are available in 'kiddie packs' for as little as RM2.

COMMENT

smoker-cigarateBy Hafidz Baharom

With the national budget to be announced on Oct 27, there have been calls to raise the duties and taxes on cigarettes yet again. In fact, I believe a senior lecturer wrote on how we should increase the price of a pack of cigarettes to RM50.

To this, I have to ask – what is the senior lecturer smoking? Is it legal? And more importantly, where can I purchase it?

I have to say that any thought of raising the price of cigarettes needs to be stubbed out right now.

At present, we must acknowledge without any further doubt that any increase in cigarette taxes will neither increase government revenue nor reduce the prevalence of smoking. It will only contribute further to the increase of illicit cigarettes which already make up more than half the cigarettes sold in the country.

Recently, we saw a ridiculous debate on whether to allow the introduction of smaller packs of cigarettes to combat this menace.

While NGOs and even the health ministry were busy opposing this proposal with petitions, having intellectuals speak out and even having their doctors take to social media in a campaign against “kiddie packs”, something happened – the illicit cigarette traders introduced the so-called 10-pack cigarettes.

A local Malay newspaper reported on Oct 6 that these kiddie packs have already made their way into our country and are being sold for as little as RM2 to RM2.50.

Thus, due to the wise and thoughtful arguments from both those against and for smaller packs of cigarettes, we now see the illicit market moving faster than our government and even the tobacco industry.

I believe sarcastic congratulations are in order because thanks to all those who have been furiously involved in the discussion on kiddie packs, illicit cigarette traders have immediately jumped on the bandwagon of opportunity and taken this idea to town.

So let’s ask the question – will raising taxes and duties to the point where cigarettes cost RM50 do anything to stop people from opting for something as cheap as RM2 or RM2.50?

Are we so blind that we cannot understand that having illicit kiddie packs priced at a mere RM2 and subsequently increasing taxes on cigarettes will just make the problem worse?

More teenagers now have access to illicit cigarettes priced cheaper than drinks at a mamak. Heck, they’re cheaper than some brands of mineral water.

What we truly need is not an increase in taxes for cigarettes. We need to take another look at the availability of less harmful alternatives to smoking cigarettes – electronic cigarettes and the like, which have been found to be 95% less harmful to smokers and those around them.

E-cigarettes and other such devices have been so successful in weaning people off cigarettes that they were promoted as part and parcel of this year’s Stoptober in the UK, with vaping featured in their month-long anti-smoking campaign.

According to the BBC, the campaign throughout October has helped 1.5 million smokers kick the habit since 2012.

The need for such an alternative is becoming more urgent. This is because the menace of illicit cigarettes in our country is so huge that efforts through enforcement may not be sufficient to weed it out.

In fact, NGOs and those at the health ministry are happy to pass the buck to customs rather than acknowledge the illicit market as an issue that has contributed to the prevalence of smoking among the youth.

Will we still delay while more and more of the younger generation take up smoking to their long-term detriment? If so, then the next generation of cigarette smokers with health issues will be on the collective conscience of the government and the NGOs, for failing to offer a less harmful alternative.

So perhaps the government, the health ministry and all other ministries involved, our leaders, and even the non-governmental health organisations can share with us just where they are in getting the sensible regulations and laws necessary to be passed for less harmful alternatives to smoking.

I’ll end this by asking a simple question: is the health ministry totally blind to the rational policy of reducing harm whenever possible?

Hafidz Baharom is an FMT reader.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


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