PETALING JAYA: On Jan 26, health minister Khairy Jamaluddin announced what is arguably one of the most ambitious plans for public health that the government has embarked on.
The plan, dubbed the Generational End Game (GEG), will ban the use, possession and sale of cigarettes and vape products for those born after 2007.
It will be realised through the Tobacco and Smoking Control Bill 2022 which was tabled for the first reading in the Dewan Rakyat on Thursday.
The bill proposes a fine for offenders, and also empowers enforcement officers to act without a warrant to open any baggage or container and examine tobacco or substitute tobacco products and smoking devices.
While there has been a lot of support for the bill and its intentions, there are also growing concerns that the GEG in its current form could lead to a host of other problems and be counterproductive.
FMT takes a closer look at the debates surrounding GEG.
Khairy said the aim of the bill is to protect youths from picking up the smoking habit and getting addicted to tobacco products as they grow older, while reducing the number of smokers in Malaysia to below 5% by 2040.
He had also talked about a future where the next generation of Malaysians would “no longer know what a cigarette is”, saying this was not impossible and could be the reality for the nation.
“If you want your children and grandchildren to be free of smoking, speak about it. Tell your MPs to support the law. Your support is capable of creating a healthier generation. Let’s do this,” he said in a video rallying support for the bill from Malaysians.
The health ministry estimates that tobacco-related illnesses contribute to 27,000 deaths a year, including non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke.
MPs have concerns
However, the parliamentary select committee on health has called for the plan to be postponed by three years, saying the new law should only be enforced after an assessment is completed and debated in Parliament.
Committee chairman Dr Kelvin Yii said the government and relevant authorities should be given time to prepare and ensure that the plan was executed effectively.
He also said the three-year period should be used to study the possible need to enact separate legislation for combustible and non-combustible tobacco products, as well as vapes, in line with emerging science and data.
Prohibition can backfire
Economist Carmelo Ferlito voiced doubt that GEG would meet its goals, saying measures akin to the 1920s US prohibition of alcohol do not work.
“It won’t be an ‘endgame’ but a ‘shift game’. A shift from legal consumption to illegal consumption,” he told FMT.
“Malaysia is already the country with the highest penetration of illicit cigarettes,” he said, citing reports that around 60% of cigarettes smoked in the country were contraband.
Ferlito, who is CEO of the Center for Market Education, said the GEG would only push more consumers toward illicit cigarettes which were cheaper and easily available.
He predicted that there would be more smuggling, less revenue for the government as illegal products evade taxes, and more unemployment as tobacco companies suffer a loss of business.
The government is believed to miss out on some RM5 billion in tax revenue every year because of the illicit cigarette trade.
Don’t ignore harm reduction strategies
For community health specialist Dr Sharifa Ezat Wan Puteh, her concern is that GEG includes vaping, a less harmful alternative to smoking.
“Some studies from the UK indicate that vape is a safer alternative to tobacco and can even help replace cigarettes,” she told FMT.
“Vape is not without risks and it should be regulated. I do support the spirit of GEG but access to reduced-risk products should not be restricted.”
Sharifa, who is with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Faculty of Medicine, said New Zealand was also pushing for its own GEG though it does not seek a ban on vaping.
“Even Japan and the UK allow and regulate reduced-risk products. In Malaysia, we have recognised harm reduction strategies like the case of our needle exchange programme and methadone replacement therapy for those with HIV.
“Malaysia can emulate tobacco harm reduction strategies adopted by New Zealand, the UK and Japan, but we must acknowledge the science and data on harm reduction.”
Sharifah added that she was worried that smokers with no access to less harmful alternatives would opt for contraband products.
Will GEG become a reality?
Not all politicians appear to be on the same page regarding GEG, unlike the cross-party consensus on the anti-hopping legislation. Critics of the GEG say the government also needs to resolve other problems first, such as illicit cigarettes.
So while many appear to be supportive of the idea behind GEG, its success would hinge on the buy-in from various stakeholders, not least the 220 MPs in the Dewan Rakyat.