Kiddie packs: Has govt caved in to tobacco lobby?


By Charles Santiago

The word that comes to my mind is “contradiction”. Let me explain.

In February this year, the government was committed to reducing the incidence of smoking among Malaysians. It also moved to increase the number of banned locations for smoking.

However a few days ago, there was talk that smaller, 10-stick cigarette packets or “kiddie packs”, would be sold to combat the sale of illegal tobacco.

This move however would encourage the sales of cigarettes as it would become much more affordable, even for students, young adults and women.

But to address the affordability of cigarettes, especially to those in the lower income bracket and youths, the Malaysian government introduced the Minimum Price Law (MPL) in 2010, in conjunction with a ban on selling cigarettes in packs of less than 20 sticks.

Last year, the health ministry told Parliament that the government plans to introduce plain-packaging for cigarettes as a way to reduce smoking in the country, a move successfully adopted in countries like Australia and Uruguay.

But the government received brickbats from big tobacco companies following the announcement and the policy was shelved.

This time around tobacco lobbyists have bypassed the health ministry altogether, earning the wrath of its Director-General Noor Hisham Abdullah, who has been reported as being against the sale of “kiddie packs”.

Instead of pandering to the whims of tobacco lobbyists, the government must consult all stakeholders including the health ministry, anti-tobacco lobbyists and schools to weigh in on the sale of “kiddie packs”.

If these smaller packs eventually go on sale, it would again demonstrate that tobacco lobbyists are determining government policy, and by so doing, questioning the sovereignty of policy making in the country.

Allowing tobacco corporations to influence tobacco control policies violates the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to which Malaysia is a signatory.

In fact, Article 16 of the FCTC explicitly states that “each party shall endeavour to prohibit the sale of cigarettes individually or in small packets which increases the affordability of such products to minors”.

Combating the sale of counterfeit cigarettes, illicit tobacco trade and cigarette smuggling requires the government to up its enforcement initiatives including increasing regional security cooperation and tightening border security.

Allowing tobacco companies to use sophisticated and devious tactics such as the sale of “kiddie packs” to challenge, discredit, weaken, obstruct, and delay implementation of effective tobacco control measures, including lobbying governments, won’t do the trick.

The tobacco industry doesn’t tire of coming up with innovative ideas to capitalise on some 125 million smokers in the Asean region from whom it reaps its profits. And it’s seeking more smokers among Asia’s young.

But in response, the Malaysian government’s conviction to stick to tobacco control policies and reduce smoking doesn’t seem to go deeper than the bottom of a soup bowl.

This is outrageous.

As such any plans to sell “kiddie packs” must be scrapped for good. Or the government and the cabinet would fail to show that its priority is to protect lives.

Charles Santiago is Klang MP.

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