PETALING JAYA: In 2015, the health ministry said it would ban smoking in all eateries, including open air premises like coffee shops, food courts and mamak stalls, a move which coffee shop and restaurant operators were concerned would affect their business.
Two years on, the move has yet to materialise, but the debate over the banning of smoking in public spaces, including eateries continues on social media, which isn’t surprising given the findings of the 2011 Global Adult Tobacco survey which found that a majority of respondents wanted all public places to be smoke free.
At an event on Friday, Health Minister Dr S Subramaniam said the gazetting of open air eateries will be done in stages.
Every year, he said, the government tries to expand places in which smoking is prohibited, though there would always be some resistance when the government tried to do anything new.
He added that parks and covered walk ways in the Federal Territories are among the more recent places where smoking has been banned.
“Some special areas with open air eateries, like those at Rest and Relaxation (R&R) stops have been made smoke free, with the assistance of highway operators like PLUS,” Subramaniam said, adding that in such areas, those who wanted to light up could only do so outside.
As far as eateries go, he said the government wants to ensure that the ban on smoking in air-conditioned restaurants, which was already in place was in full force.
Of health effects and political will
Veteran doctor H Krishna Kumar says that the government needs to ban smoking from eateries, as second hand smoke was harmful, especially to the young whose lungs haven’t fully developed or the old who may be suffering from lung disease.
Krishna, who is the chairman of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ Representative Committee noted that most first world countries already banned smoking in public.
He added that where eateries are concerned, there should be designated smoking areas outside the restaurant rather than smoking sections inside the premises.
“In cold countries, even in the middle of winter, people who hang out at pubs are willing to step outside for a smoke,” he told FMT.
“If people want to kill themselves by smoking that’s their right, but they shouldn’t go around killing others (non-smokers).”
The health ministry estimates that 100,000 Malaysians die of smoke-related illnesses every year.
For Malaysian Council for Tobacco Control (MCTC) president Dr Molly Cheah, what is needed is real political will – which she says has been lacking – to see the move through.
“The government needs to have the political will to implement policies in the interests of the people, do what’s right for them.”
She said that Putrajaya had only recently amended the law to gazette more areas as smoke free zones and there was no reason why it shouldn’t also gazette eateries as smoke free areas.
Earlier this year, it was reported that the government had gazetted all national and state parks, playgrounds, camp sites and public parks in Peninsular Malaysia as no smoking areas.
Those who flout the rules, reportedly run the risk of a fine of up to RM10,000 and a jail term of up to two years.
“Enough research has been done on the effects of second-hand smoke. There is enough evidence so there shouldn’t be any reason to delay a ban on smoking in eateries,” Cheah told FMT.
Bad for business
But coffee shop operators and restaurateurs still have reservations against the move and that the matter still needs to be studied.
Petaling Jaya Coffeeshop Association (PJCA) president Keu Kok Mong says that a smoking ban in coffee shops “will definitely affect business” as people have been smoking in coffee shops “for decades”.
Many coffee shops in Malaysia don’t have a separate sitting area for smoking and non-smoking customers.
He added such a ban would also see coffee shop operators losing out on additional revenue from the sale of cigarettes at the coffee shop as people would be less inclined to buy them where they couldn’t smoke.
T Muthusamy, the president of the Malaysian Indian Restaurant Owners Association (Primas) shared similar sentiments, but was in favour of partitions in shops to separate smokers and non-smokers.
“If the government goes ahead with the ban, they need to give sufficient time to restaurants and smokers before enforcement begins, to give both parties time to adjust to such a ruling.”
Malaysian Muslim Restaurant Owners Association (Presma) president Ayoob Khan Muhamad Yakub said he hoped the necessary research would be carried out before the government implements any ban on smoking in eateries.
“The pros and cons of such a policy need to be weighed first,” Ayoob said, adding that if the government proceeds with the move, the awareness level must be raised before the rule is enforced so as to “avoid any confusion” that may arise.
He also said designated smoking areas in restaurants should be allowed to accommodate both smokers and non-smokers.
The gazetting of more areas as smoke-free zones is one of the ways the government is trying to reduce tobacco consumption among the country’s five million estimated smokers.
Putrajaya has set a goal of reducing tobacco consumption by 30% by 2025.
The government is currently looking at reducing tobacco consumption by increasing the minimum age of buying cigarettes to 21, introducing plain packaging for cigarettes and increasing the price of cigarettes from RM17 to RM21.50 per pack.
Afiqah Farieza contributed to this article.